The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled on 7 July that MiaoLan Lee, co-founder of the Temple of 1,001 Buddhas in Fremont, California, must tear down her temple due to building code violations. According to the ruling, Lee is free to practice Buddhism anywhere on her property, but the religious nature of the building does not exempt it from building-safety codes, which city officials say were not met in the construction of the temple.
Lee, who purchased the 11.7-hectare property in 2010 on the rural Mill Creek Road east of Fremont, quickly began renovating buildings on the property and adding new structures. One of these buildings became the Temple of 1,001 Buddhas. In 2021, city officials ordered her to remove several of the buildings, including the temple, a Hindu devotional house, and four other structures, which they said posed a fire hazard, lacked proper wastewater treatment facilities, and violated other city rules.
Lee has argued that the temple is used only for private worship, and that the city was discriminating against her religion. She accused Fremont’s deputy community director, Wayne Morris, of discriminatory comments in 2019 when she was working to obtain permits for the buildings.
According to Lee, Morris said she was “using the Buddha as a protective shield” and asked her if she thought “Buddha is OK with the construction.” (San Francisco Chronicle)
Lee further asserted that Freemont city officials had placed tighter restrictions on her and her land than on Caucasians in her area who had told her that they had also built structures without permits on their own land.
However, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which consisted of Judges Eric Miller and Lucy Koh and US District Judge Barbara Lynn of Texas, temporarily assigned to the appeals court, said that her allegations, even if proven, would not show that the city had acted out of discrimination.
“To show religious discrimination, Lee must plausibly allege that [city officials] took enforcement actions against her because of, not merely in spite of, the adverse effect on her religious practice,” said the three-judge panel. They noted that Lee’s lawsuit against the city “nowhere squarely disputes that she built numerous structures without permits, in violation of the municipal code.” Furthermore, while some of Lee’s neighbors did have buildings without permits, “none were of the size and scale” of the Buddhist temple and other structures that had been ordered removed. (San Francisco Chronicle)
Specifically, the judges upheld a previous ruling by US District Judge Charles Breyer of San Francisco, which said that the order to remove the temple and other buildings did not interfere with Lee’s right to “exercise her religion elsewhere on her property.” (San Francisco Chronicle)
According to Lee’s attorney, Angela Alioto, the ruling could be appealed at the highest court in the country. “Civil Rights are taking a serious hit in the courts and we have to fight back, to the Supreme Court if need be,” Alioto said. (San Francisco Chronicle)
According to US law, Lee may file a petition for a “writ of certiorari,” which asks the Supreme Court to review the case. The Supreme Court is not obligated to grant the review, however.
In notable recent cases, the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of religious liberties, in one case siding with a Sabbath-observing mail carrier who quit the US Postal service after being forced to work on Sundays, his holy day. In another recent case, the court sided with an Evangelical Christian web designer who refused to work for same-sex couples.
Fremont can force Buddhist woman to tear down unpermitted temple, Ninth Circuit rules (San Francisco Chronicle)
She spent millions to build ‘cultural work of art.’ Now she says Fremont wants it torn down (The Mercury News)
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