Hindus Wage Legal Battle
for Control of Temple
By Jonah D. King;
Religion News Service
The next chapter of an entrenched legal battle for control of one of the
largest Hindu temples in North America will be written in federal court.
The twisting tale of the Hindu Temple Society of North America in Flushing,
N.Y., is one of disputed bylaws, an authoritarian board of trustees and a
group of members who want trustee elections to be held for the first time.
At stake is the temple's right to conduct its affairs without government
intervention, a right, that if denied, is a violation of the constitutional
separation of church and state, the trustees and their supporters say. The
members who want elections say that the trustees rule in violation of the
temple's bylaws, and that new elections should be held as soon as possible.
Also at stake is control of an impressive house of worship whose assets are
valued at more than $11 million.
Temple lawyers are scheduled to argue in federal court on Aug. 26 that the
New York state appellate court is violating the separation of church and
state by setting up a procedure to hold elections for temple trustees.
"What's basically going on is it's a hostile takeover attempt by dissident
members of the temple," said Roman Storzer, a lawyer with the Becket Fund
for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit law firm based in Washington and one of
two firms representing the temple's board of trustees.
"These people are unhappy with the way that the temple was being run, and
they are trying to use the state court system as a tool to transfer
leadership over," Storzer said.
But that's not the case, said Krishnamurthy Aiyer, formerly the temple
appraiser and one of the members seeking elections. He said it doesn't
matter to him who wins an election, only that the temple members elect the
Aiyer said he joined the call for elections in 2000 after his pleas for
trustee accountability fell on deaf ears. He and others put together a
petition signed by 700 temple members asking for elections, but met
resistance from the trustees. "Nobody was allowed to participate. Nobody was
allowed to question," Aiyer said. "`If you don't like it, you can go to some
other place, somewhere else, don't come here' -- that was the general
attitude of the trustees from the very beginning."
The temple society was incorporated in 1970, building a massive gray temple
in Flushing designed according to Hindu scripture. It prospered as Hindus
immigrated to the United States through the 1970s and '80s, accumulating
millions of dollars in assets.
|The crux of the current dispute is over which
bylaws govern the temple. There are two sets to choose from: one drafted in
1970, the other in 1978. Because federal law requires U.S. citizens to sit
on the board of nonprofit organizations, seven non-Hindu Americans served as
trustees of the temple until Hindus who were U.S. citizens could join the
In order to achieve nonprofit status, these first trustees and a tax lawyer
drafted a set of bylaws that were sent to the Internal Revenue Service in
1970. The bylaws described how a person could qualify for membership and how
trustees would be elected.
They also said anyone could become a temple member irrespective of color,
race, religion, sex or nationality. It is unclear whether those bylaws were
ever used to govern temple affairs, but there have never been trustee
Storzer said the temple never operated under the 1970 bylaws, which he
called "draft bylaws," but rather under bylaws written in 1978. Those bylaws
were written by Hindu trustees and established a self-perpetuating board of
trustees with total control over the temple.
Dr. Uma Mysorekar, a gynecologist and current head of the board of trustees,
said temple trustees never signed the 1970 bylaws, though Aiyer said they
were signed by the temple founder, Dr. Alagappa Alagappan.
During the legal wrangle, the temple members retrieved the 1970 bylaws from
the IRS. After several trips to court, the appellate court ruled that the
1970 bylaws govern the temple.
The court instructed Justice Joseph G. Golia of the New York State Supreme
Court, who had previously ruled in favor of the temple trustees, to appoint
a referee to head a management committee charged with organizing trustee
elections. Golia appointed Long Island attorney Anthony Piacentini.
Temple attorneys said the court ruling and referee have violated the
temple's freedom from government interference and amount to the court
determining the leadership and membership of the temple. "This is such an
egregious violation of the church autonomy doctrine that our clients' rights
need to be protected and they simply were not getting that in the state
system," Storzer said.
The Becket Fund is not the only religious advocacy group that disagreed with
the court's decision. William Donohue, president of the Catholic League,
said he would help the trustees with petitions, protests or a legal filing.
"I was alarmed by the remedy here," Donohue said. "I don't like the state
intervening in the affairs of religious institutions."