Spirit of Aloha Temple v. County of Maui

A sanctuary for spiritual growth

A Hindu organization called Spirit of Aloha Temple purchased land in Maui County, Hawaii, in 2007 for religious use. Years later, the Temple decided to expand its ministry by holding weddings on its property. Because the land was zoned for agricultural use, to construct the facilities it needed to host celebrations, the Temple had to apply for a special use permit from the county (a permit which secular entities are routinely granted).

Stifled by bureaucrats

Unfortunately, the Temple was denied the permit application by a commission of unelected government bureaucrats, who cited concerns such as increased traffic to the area around wedding celebrations. The Spirit of Aloha Temple sued, arguing that the permit denial restricted the practice of its faith and violated the RLUIPA. Passed by Congress in 2000, RLUIPA protects people of all faiths from zoning and land use laws being manipulated to squelch religious practices on a religious organization’s own land.

Protecting religious exercise on religious land

Here, a federal court undermined the independent check that RLUIPA provides against local bureaucrats. Rather than independently review the denial of the Temple’s land-use permit, the lower court deferred to the local bureaucrats when reviewing whether their decision was fair. Given that unwarranted deference, it is no surprise that the Temple’s RLUIPA claims were dismissed.

In March 2020, Becket filed a brief in support of the Temple at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Representing Becket on the brief was the Stanford Law School Religious Liberty Clinic, including faculty members Prof. Jim Sonne and Zeba Huq, and students Claire Greenberg and Nathaniel Bernstein. Comprehensively laying out RLUIPA’s text, history, and structure, Becket’s brief confirms that the government bureaucrats cannot both decide whether the Spirit of Aloha Temple can use their land to hold wedding services and then have their findings blindly followed when facing judicial review. Concluding otherwise would undermine the careful balance that Congress sought to ensure for people of all faiths by passing RLUIPA.

On September 22, 2022, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the Temple’s permit was allowed under RLUIPA.  

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Property rightsPracticing one’s faith almost always requires land use, but, unfortunately, this aspect of religious exercise is too often denied to groups who can’t afford to fight local zoning commissions or hostility. Becket fights to ensure the rights of minority faith groups to build houses of worship under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

Hindu Temple Society of North America v. New York Supreme Court

Venigalla v. Nori

In New York City, it’s common to hear about a hostile takeover of a corporation. What you don’t hear about every day is a hostile takeover of a Hindu Temple.

The Hindu Temple Society of North America is the nation’s oldest and most influential Hindu temple. But in 2004, it was the target of a hostile takeover attempt by six insurgents, some of whom rarely, if ever, attended the Temple. The insurgents filed suit in New York state court seeking an order putting them in charge of the Temple’s religious activities.

The New York state court system’s response to the takeover attempt was a forced restructuring of the Temple. Instead of allowing the Temple to govern itself in the traditional Hindu religious manner—which does not include a concept of “membership”—the New York courts tried to force the Temple to adopt a congregational structure similar to that of a Baptist church, where members elect leadership. In fact, since the Temple had no membership rolls, the state courts asked everyone who had signed the Temple’s visitor book if they wanted to be “members.”

To defend the Temple against this unprecedented invasion of its religious autonomy, Becket intervened in 2004, defending both the state court lawsuit and filing a lawsuit on behalf of the Temple, its Trustees, and several ordinary devotees of the Temple who wanted to keep the government out of the Temple’s affairs.

Becket argued in both lawsuits that the presiding judges had taken control of the Temple, stopped its devotees from worshiping the way they want, censored the Temple’s speech, and imposed a voting membership requirement, including the definition of who is a Hindu. If the state had gotten its way, it would have had the authority to decides which priests will be hired and what gods will be worshiped.

However, after four years of litigation, New York’s highest court—the Court of Appeals—ruled in favor of the Temple and against the idea that a Temple could be treated as if it were a congregation of believers.

In a twist of irony, this victory for religious freedom came in a place where that freedom was first invoked in North America. The Temple is located in Flushing, Queens, the birthplace of religious freedom in North America. The Flushing Remonstrance of 1657 is an important precursor to the First Amendment and one of the oldest expressions of religious freedom in the world. It reproved the Dutch colonial Governor Peter Stuyvesant for his attempts to ban Quakers, a reviled religious minority at the time. Bowne Street, on which the Temple stands, is named after John Bowne, the English resident of New Amsterdam whom Governor Stuyvesant banished from the colony for allowing Quakers to hold religious services in his home.

*Photo of Hindu Temple Society of North America.  Credit WikiCommons.