Hindu American Foundation Submits Amicus (Friend of Court) Letter in Federal Court
Tampa, FL (September 29, 2004) - On September 2, 2004, The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) submitted an amicus (friend of court) letter, with ten co-signatories spanning the religious spectrum, in support of a request for injunctive relief filed by the Hindu Temple Society of North America in United States federal court on August 4, 2004. The federal lawsuit, filed on behalf of the Hindu temple by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and supported by the HAF amici curiae letter, that was one of the last documents accepted by United States District Judge Raymond Dearie for review, claimed that the Supreme Court of the State of New York engaged in a hostile takeover of the prominent Hindu Temple in Queens, New York.
The Becket Fund and HAF hold that the state court, and an appointed referee who is not Hindu, have unconstitutionally intruded upon the Hindu temple in response to efforts by six dissident members to gain control over the temple. The referee, Anthony Piacentini, is currently in control over the daily administration of the temple, including determining who qualifies as a “member” and whether a member need be Hindu, because the state court asserts that it has been unable to gain the cooperation of the current Board in restructuring the governance of the temple. The state court found that an earlier set of the by-laws required the Hindu temple to have a voting membership to decide numerous matters pertaining to the temple, including electing Board members. The text of the amici letter clarifies that HAF does not advocate for a specific party in the internal temple dispute.
“Our role is not to recommend how a temple chooses to structure its governance or for whom the courts should rule when temple disputes reach the tragic point of filing lawsuits,” asserts Suhag Shukla, Esq., Legal Counsel for HAF. “But HAF is concerned that a similar dispute at a church or synagogue would not have ended in the takeover of that institution by an outsider who controls every aspect of that institution from administration to how and when religious rites may be performed.” She also added, “And certainly, we are, by no means, advocating a position that religious organizations are somehow above the law. However, there are numerous alternatives a court may avail itself of to ensure that its orders are carried out such as holding uncooperative parties in contempt. In the instant case, the Supreme Court of the State of New York chose to act in a way that ignores the fundamental principle of separation of church and state.”
The Becket Fund and HAF claimed in their filings that the state court intruded into every level of temple administration in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution—amendments that guarantee the right to free exercise and equal protection under the law, respectively. On September 16, 2004, Judge Dearie ruled that the federal court appreciated the important First Amendment concerns raised by the Becket Fund and HAF, but chose to abstain from overruling the state courts at this time.
“While we are obviously disappointed that the federal court did not reverse the unconstitutional ongoing interference into temple affairs by the New York Supreme Court,” said Ms. Shukla, “HAF will continue to support the Becket Fund in their appeal and continue to spread awareness as to the crucial principles at stake.”
The text of the HAF letter can be viewed in full on the Beckett Fund website at http://www.becketfund.org/index.php/case/87.html. The letter that was presented by HAF on behalf of AGNI Corporation, the Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights, the Hindu Human Rights Group, the Hindu International Council Against Defamation, Hindu University of America, Ile Obatala Oya, Kanchi Kamakoti Seva Foundation, Navya Shastra, and the Queens Federation of Churches, discusses how the state court system has burdened the Hindu Temple Society's religious practice:
"The order mandating a state-sponsored referee to determine the method by which the Hindu Temple structures and governs itself; who qualifies as a member, an inquiry which potentially includes determining who qualifies as a 'Hindu; and imposing rule by a majority of state-approved members, absent any legal basis, appears punitive and represents a potentially hostile interference into the sanctity of the Hindu Temple. It also clearly interferes with the Hindu Temple’s ability to function, let alone exercise its religion, as the Board of Trustees, which as an entity has governed the Hindu Temple for the past thirty years, is no longer able conduct its business including appointing, hiring and dismissing priests; exercising authority over the design and expansion of the temple grounds according to Hindu religious principles; managing the scheduling of religious services at the temple; deciding which divinities will be honored as well as the forms of devotion that will occur at the temple; controlling the finances of the temple; and all other aspects of religious and temporal activities associated with the temple."
“The fact that ten organizations representing three different religions signed onto a letter authored by HAF indicates the broad relevance of this issue,” said Mihir Meghani, M.D., President of HAF. “Furthermore,” continued Dr. Meghani, “It highlights well the role HAF can play in representing Hindu interests in just such a circumstance—something few other Hindu organizations are able to do.”