News at Tipitaka Network
Buddhist Temple Dispute To Be Decided By Vote
Compiled by Tipitaka Network Newsdesk, Sunday, September 3, 2006
FORT SMITH, Sebastian (Arkansas) A dispute over control over a Buddhist temple will be decided by a vote using county equipment, the Sebastian County Election Commission said.
For the past year, members of the Fort Smith temple on Armour Street have been fighting — not literally, for heaven’s sake — over control of the local temple, Wat Buddha Samakitham, at 4625 Armour St. In June 2005, a group of temple members filed a civil suit in Sebastian County Circuit Court against the temple’s abbot, Phra Sangob Parisanto, and several other temple members. Officials said that when they took the case to court, a judge ordered the dispute to be settled through a vote.
The court-ordered election is scheduled for Sept. 10. County officials said the temple has agreed to pay $1,000 to rent voting machines and will pay for personnel to run the election.
It’s an odd enough development that it’s worth some head scratching, even from the election commission.
“What are we doing?” asked Election Commission member Jim Perry, according to a Times Record story Tuesday. “Are we opening this up for anyone who has a faction in the church to vote? This concerns me because here we are using county equipment, and all I ever hear about is separation of church and state.”
It doesn’t appear that the commission will have to make a habit of this. As Rex Terry, the commission’s vice chair, noted, this doesn’t happen very often, and there are extenuating circumstances.
“This is a very rare thing, and as long as it is fully paid for, I don’t have a problem with it,” Terry said. “We’re not available for anyone who has a church dispute, but they’ve already taken their case to civil court.”
That, as Commission Chairwoman Amy Click-Horoda said, IS the big difference. “The court is involved, and no taxpayer funds will be used,” she said. It has apparently been a case of dueling bylaws.
The plaintiffs alleged that the defendants were trying to take control of the temple from the duly-elected board of directors, in violation of bylaws that had been in effect since 1989. Parisanto and 11 other people filed a cross complaint that accused the plaintiffs of violating temple bylaws that were passed in 1992, superseding the 1989 bylaws.
In August 2005, Circuit Judge James Marschewski placed First National Bank in temporary charge of the temple’s bank accounts. Marschewski ruled in May 2006 that the older bylaws were the valid ones, and he ordered an election among the members to pick seven new temple board members, who would then take control of the temple’s accounts.
Tensions did not ease after the judge’s ruling. On June 2, Fort Smith police were called to the temple after a heated argument arose over whether visiting monks who did not belong to the Dhammayut denomination of Buddhism — the denomination of the resident monks — should be given quarters at the temple.
Marschewski held another hearing June 23. After it became evident from testimony that the two sides disagreed on virtually every aspect of the election, including the date, the judge said the court would set the rules for the election.
On July 10, Marschewski appointed a special master in the case. Fort Smith lawyer Brad Jesson, a former Arkansas Supreme Court justice who served as a special master in the Lake View school-funding case, received the appointment.
Jesson set a date for the election, issued a list of rules for it and asked the Election Commission to conduct it. Last week, he presided over a two-day hearing during which both sides presented arguments about whether specific people should or should not be eligible to vote.
“Where we are now is that we now have a master list of people who are eligible to vote in the elections, and the elections are scheduled for Sept. 10,” said Fort Smith lawyer Brian Meadors, who represents the plaintiffs in the civil suit.
Meadors and Fort Smith lawyer Robert Frazier, attorney for the defendants, both have high hopes for the election.
“I don’t see any problems with the election. I think it can run smoothly,” Frazier said.
“We’ve got a lot of oversight, counsel is working well together, and Brad Jesson is being very helpful in keeping things running smoothly,” Meadors said. “I’m very optimistic and pleased about the whole thing. We’re going to have a clean and fair election.”
Whether the election will bring the people of the temple together or divide them further remains to be seen. Victoria Sayarath, who was among those found eligible to vote during last week’s hearing, said she fears some people may stop going to the temple if the election does not turn out the way they want.
“I think they can work through it, but I’m not sure if some people are going to want to work through it,” she said.
Sayarath said she is saddened by the dispute, which she believes conflicts with the Buddhist ideal of living in harmony with one’s surroundings.
“I know a lot of people are torn up about it, and it’s really depressing to see it,” she said.
This Buddhist thing is just weird. It’s always foolish to grossly generalize, and we accept that at the outset. But when we think of Buddhists, what comes to mind are people who have meditated and studied and discovered inner peace and the true nature of the world and beyond.
We’re more comfortable with the thought of meditating Buddhists than we are with the idea of Buddhists that have to seek mediation. But snarls happen in the best of churches, and it would appear that in a couple of weeks, this disagreement will be put to rest, even if it took some unconventional means to get there.
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