Supervisors should not cave to religious freedom arguments in the debate about the Sufism Reoriented sanctuary

Call me anti-religious. But Sufism Reoriented’s desire to build a big white complex in Walnut Creek’s residential Saranap community shouldn’t get any more consideration than any secular property owner whose grandiose construction ambitions ignite neighborhood concerns.

The three-year-old controversy is now in the hands of Contra County Board of Supervisors. They will hold a special all-day hearing at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts Tuesday. Hundreds are expected to speak at the meeting, at which the supervisors will decide on an appeal by Saranap neighbors who disagree with the county Planning Commission’s November decision to allow the 66,000-square-foot sanctuary to rise on 3.12 acres on Boulevard Way. 

All along, the 350-member organization has said that the white, multi-domed design of their proposed  sanctuary embodies “our most sacred beliefs and supports our worship.”  The
Contra Costa County Interfaith Council supports the Sufi plan, with the Rev. Brian Stein-Webber, director of the council, telling the Contra Costa Times that religions, even those outside the mainstream, as Sufism Reoriented is, should have a right to build within their community. Opposition to design elements of the project are the result of unintended religious bias, one Sufism member, Pascal Kaplan, said during testimony before the Planning Commission. 

Sure, religious organizations should be able to build in their communities, but they shouldn’t receive special consideration to build what they want just because they are a religious organization.

In a post in December, I quoted constitutional scholar Marci Hamilton, an expert on church-state relations, on the problems that arise when church organizations gain special privileges in land use and other disputes. A federal law, such as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, shifts the balance of power in residential neighborhoods to religious landowners. “The residential quality of a neighborhood takes a back seat to the interests of the church group,” she wrote in her book God versus the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law. “The untoward result is that homeowners become second-class citizens to their religious neighbors.”  

Hamilton supports religious freedom, but wants reasonable limits for the good of everyone. “Religion’s force can be just another iteration of the drive to power,” she writes, saying that Americans should get over an unrealistic and hazardous belief “that religion is always for the good.”
She says that “some religious conduct deserves freedom and some requires limitation.”

It’s possible that religious issues will come up in Tuesday’s meeting. religious grounds.

County planning staff have recommended that the supervisors deny the appeal and allow the project to go forward. Most of their reasons for approval hinge on their opinion that Sufism Reoriented has adequately addressed parking, traffic and other environmental impacts. Essentially, staff says the single-family residential high-density zoning in that area allows for churches and religious institutions. The proposed sanctuary meets all the necessary development standards, which are the same for religious buildings as they for residential structures.

But staff also cites Sufism religious practices as a reason for approving its size and design. Neighbors object to the 66,000 square feet — similar in scale to downtown Walnut Creek’s new library or Neiman Marcus department store. They also object to the 13 white domes, saying they are inconsistent with the character of the rest of the neighborhood.

Staff acknowledges that  “the style is unique” but they say it reflects “the central tenants of the applicant’s religious beliefs.” The organization has also adequately explained its spiritual needs for such a large building, staff say. “The members of Sufism worship and celebrate the founder through the arts, music, drama and dance and therefore, the display, storage and shipping of art, scoring room, prayer hall etc. are necessary.”

While Sufism Reoriented says they need this particular design for their religious practices, their desire should not trump neighbors’ desire to stop a massive construction project from going in near their homes. As I said, call me anti-religious. Or just say that I agree with Hamilton in the very American ideal of separation of church and state.

In a lot of ways, the Sufism plan is the equivalent of the big ugly house your grandiose neighbor wants to build — a situation that doesn’t necessarily bode well for opponents of the sanctuary project.

I’m sure the homeowners who built that big ugly house on the Alamo hill overlooking Interstate 680 were as dedicated to their views of design and aesthetics as Sufism members are to theirs.

Actually, the county has a tendency to support big ugly houses in unincorporated areas, like that Alamo house or the ones dominating the hill overlooking the Parkmead neighborhood. So, if those projects can go through, I can easily see the Sufism sanctuary project ultimately getting the green light.

15 thoughts on “Supervisors should not cave to religious freedom arguments in the debate about the Sufism Reoriented sanctuary

  1. “…the Sufism plan is the equivalent of the big ugly house your grandiose neighbor wants to build…”

    if a person does not know what NIMBY means yet, all they have to do is check out your quote here.


  2. Thanks, Soccer Mom, for weighing in.

    Here are some links to four related articles that may be of interest to readers.

    These articles contain hyperlinks to source documents so the fruits of my research can be available to all readers.

    1. Why Opposition to this the Sufi Project has Nothing to do with Religion:

    2. What is Sufism Reoriented, Who is Behind this Bldg Project and Why this Project Poses a Litigation Threat for Contra Costa County:

    3. County Limits Time for Appellants at 2/21 Hearing:

    4. Sufi Church Officials Used False Document to Gain Project Approval:

    Wendy Lack
    Contra Costa County, CA
    February 20, 2012


  3. Beauty is of course in the eye of the beholder, but I find the design very beautiful. Compared to the ugliness of the buildings on Boulevard Way, the contrast is even more striking.

    As far as Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act goes, it is the law of the passed by ALL of the Democrats and Republican in Congress and signed by President Bush. Although strictly secular people dislike it, the law clearly enjoys broad support. And, of course, as the law of the land, it governs decisions like this one.


  4. @Anonymous:

    RLUIPA does not provide religious institutions with immunity from land use regulations but, instead, requires government to apply its legitimate zoning and building rules in a religion-neutral manner.

    In the present case, the county has failed to fulfill its duty to apply its rules consistent with local ordinances and past practice.


  5. Dear Wendy –

    Call me an old and suspicious geezer, but I think your byline on Patch says it all – you are a freelance writer –

    So, are you, yes or no, being paid to write the articles or posts on Halfway to Concord, here on Crazy in Suburbia, and on Walnut Creek Patch by anyone?


  6. @Old Fart:


    No one pays me to write about this or any other topic.

    My motives are pure and solely motivated by my self-interest as a Contra Costa resident.

    By speaking out on issues, I do what I can to motivate local government to operate lawfully and in the public interest.

    I endeavor to direct sunshine on government decisions when they are contrary to the public interest, as is the case here.


  7. @Anonymous on February 21, 2012 at 7:20AM:

    In 2003, the IRS recognized Sufism Reoriented as a church. It's interesting that Sufism sought this status after operating as a non-profit — not a church — since the 1950's.

    After obtaining IRS recognition as a religious institution, Sufism achieved legal standing to conduct itself accordingly (including filing or threatening to file RLUIPA lawsuits, as occasion arises to do so).

    A dispute regarding the “is it or isn't it” church status question remains roiling within the Sufism community. Some Meher Baba followers have distanced themselves from Sufism Reoriented due to disagreements about issues such as this.


  8. “Some Meher Baba followers have distanced themselves from Sufism Reoriented due to disagreements about issues such as this.”

    Look, Ms. Lack, now you have just gone too far with your hyperbolic comments. You probably know NOTHING about how Meher Baba people who are not sufis stand in the matter except for what Roger Bird has put out there.

    I happen to be a Meher Baba person who is not a Sufi and I am both astonished and angry that you think you can represent my or other Baba people's views in this matter.

    Do you not think, if the other Baba people had a problem with the Sufis, that they would not have come out in great force to try to undermine this project?

    Well they have not, and if you've noticed, there are at least two of us standing up for them.

    As far as I am concerned, the Sufis are easily within the definition of a religion. It is of NO concern to me as a Meher Baba follower whether they have embraced organizing as an official religion or not.

    Your attempts to create divisiveness here can only be seen as juvenile.


  9. Sad to see that the horrible eyesore that the Sufi's want to build has been approved. I am so glad I moved out of the area as it would have been horrible to have had my eyes assaulted by that ugly looking UFO building on a daily basis.


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