Sufism Reoriented vows federal fight over disputed sanctuary plans

At Tuesday’s special Contra Costa County supervisors meeting,  more than 100 people spoke out on many things for and against a religious group’s plans to build a big white 66,000-square-foot center in the unincorporated Saranap neighborhood of Walnut Creek.
And then  someone at the hearing at Walnut Creek’s downtown Lesher Center for the Arts invoked the dreaded RLUIPA. The meaning behind this gag-inducing set of initials has the potential to take this dispute to a new and very litigious  level.
(Check out other big white monuments — to power and ego? — that grace communities near and far: The Mormon Temple in Oakland, of which the sanctuary would be two-thirds the size; the 58,000-square-foot building at 1500 Newell Avenue; the 55,000-square-foot White House; the 57,000-square-foot “manor” of late Charlie’s Angels and Dynasty producer Aaron Spelling.)
The RLUIPA threat has always surrounded this issue, hovering in the background. But now we know how far Sufism Reoriented is prepared to go to defend its multi-domed complex, much of which will be built underground. In a statement to the supervisors, Sandy Skaggs, an attorney for Sufism Reoriented said,  “We are very prepared to defend this in court,” according to the Contra Costa Times.
The mechanism for this court fight would be RLUIPA, which stands for the 2000 federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. This law bars government entities from imposing land use regulations that create a “substantial burden” on a group’s right to religious assembly. 
But constitutional scholar Marci Hamilton describes it as a law that can be burdensome to neighbors who oppose a church group’s expansion plans. Hamilton wrote a book God Versus the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law in which she devotes a chapter to church-state disputes in land-use issues. 
Before RLUIPA, religious landowners in virtually every jurisdiction in the United States “were just landowners,” writes Hamilton in her book. She is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin Cardozo School of Law.
Once upon a time, these landowners had to abide by zoning restrictions and take into account the views of homeowners regarding the impact of their proposal, she says. “They were property owners with equal rights under the land use law with all other property owners, and they had to be a good neighbor.”
RLUIPA changed all that, shifting the balance of power in residential neighborhoods to religious landowners, at the expense of the residential quality of the neighborhood, she says.
President Bill Clinton signed RLUIPA into law. Hamilton says Clinton never met a religious cause he would not support, and Congress made no effort to determine independently whether this “special interest legislation” was good for the people, Hamilton writes.
Congressional supporters of RLUIPA just went along with it, because religious leaders wanted it, Hamilton says. Religious organizations, with their growing political clout, lobbied for the law. The U.S. Supreme Court had invalidated as unconstitutional an earlier federal law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which basically gave religious entities a loophole for skirting all local, state and federal laws, including land-use laws.
Now with RLUIPA, residential landowners who face ambitious religious building plans don’t have the same right to equal protection, Hamilton contends. RLUIPA essentially creates two classes of citizens. “The first class is s ‘religious’ and the second class envelops everyone else. It is fundamentally unfair, as any homeowner who has been in this circumstance will tell you.’
Unfortunately, city and county entities are inclined to give in to religious organizations’ demands because, in these budget-challenged times, they can’t afford costly and lengthy court fights. Neighbors opposing a church’s plans usually don’t have the resources for a legal fight, either.
As Halfway to Concord blogger Wendy Lack pointed out, Sufism Reoriented had itself changed to an IRS-approved religious organization in 2003 after operating a nonprofit corporation since the 1950s. Gearing up for the big RLUIPA fight?
Sufism Reoriented might also have the deep pockets for a court challenge, reporting annual income for three years in a row of about $2.5 million and $17 million in assets. Cheesecake Factory CEO David M. Overton is a financial supporter, Lack reported.
The County Planning Commission gave the sanctuary proposal a thumbs up. Saranap residents appealed, and now it’s in the hands of supervisors who will continue their deliberations Wednesday.
In an editorial Thursday, the Contra Costa Times said Saranap residents have legitimate concerns about the project. It has more square footage than a football field and more than two-thirds that of the Mormon Temple in Oakland, which sits on 18 acres. The Sufism plan “would be jammed into three.”
In addition to size, the proposal has other serious problems, the Times said: the safety of the driveway access near a major road bend and “horribly inadequate parking.” 
The Sufis have been  playing the religious discrimination card all along, which is rather disappointing for a group is said to be forward thinking and community oriented. “Religious freedom does not give a faith community the right to run roughshod over reasonable planning guidelines and does not make those who question such a move bigots,” the Times editorial said. “The First Amendment protects not only religious expression, but speech as well. Residents are entitled to have their say — and they should be listened to.”
For extensive coverage of Tuesday’s hearing, go to Walnut Creek Patch
Previous Crazy in Suburbia posts:

Big, ugly “spaceship-looking” building or beautiful “sacred place?” Religious group’s sanctuary plans divide once tranquil WC/Lafayette neighborhood, March 15, 2009

Saranap neighbors protest large “spaceship-looking” Sufism sanctuary, March 17, 2009

Which would you rather have in your neighborhood? Sufism Reoriented’s 66,000-square-foot sanctuary or Aaron Spelling’s 57,000-square-foot “Manor?”March 28, 2009

Is Saranap’s Sufism Reoriented sanctuary debate heating up again? Nov. 30, 2009

County requests EIR for controversial Sufism Reoriented sanctuary project Feb. 26, 2010

Sufism Reoriented says it, not the county, initiated the request for an EIR for its new sanctuary April 7, 2010

A Matter of Religious Freedom Nov. 1, 2011

A fundamental showdown: When a church group wants to expand its house of worship in a residential neighborhood Dec. 2, 2011

Supervisors should not cave to religious freedom arguments in the debate about the Sufism Reoriented sanctuary Feb. 19, 2012






25 thoughts on “Sufism Reoriented vows federal fight over disputed sanctuary plans

  1. The beef people have can only be with the county at this point, not with the Sufis.

    The Sufis followed what the traffic demand ordinance allowed them to do and so the county staff appropriately approved it – should the Sufis now be punished for doing the traffic program well, even superbly?

    I do not think so. If you have a beef with how the program works, then take that up with the county proper, but the Sufis have demonstrated that they only need about 70 spots, and then only once per year they may need more.

    The traffic program requires them to seek another parking solution if the current one is not complied with – so what's still the real motive for the opposition?

    Big white domes being opposed by NIMBY neighbors. It's still just that, wrapped up in a whole bunch of other baloney. There are still commentators calling them Muslims.

    If they have to resort to RLUIPA to protect their rights, who could blame them? This is the very sort of situation why RLUIPA was signed into law – so that unknown small religions would get a fair shake.


  2. This discussion ignored the prior act, Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was held unconstitutional.

    That prior act was passed because court decisions had intruded upon the ability of religious organizations to practice their religion, aka, the Sherbert Test. RFRA, like the later bill, enjoyed remarkable bipartisan support with, as wikipedia puts it, “liberal (like the American Civil Liberties Union) and conservative groups (like the Traditional Values Coalition) as well as other groups such as the Christian Legal Society, the American Jewish Congress, and the National Association of Evangelicals joined forces to support RFRA, which would reinstate the Sherbert Test, overturning laws if they burden a religion”

    It should also be noted that RLUIPA was introduced by Republican Senator Orin Hatch in response to that court decision. It was passed by unanimous voice vote in both Houses of Congress which means that the entire political spectrum from far left to far right supported it which is remarkable.

    Thus RLUIPA did not spring out of nowhere as your post implied, but is part of a long tradition in American history of protecting religion under the First Amendment including reversing Supreme Court decisions which eroded religious freedom.


  3. You claimed that the Sufis are not subject to religious discrimination. But if you were to have attended all the public hearings you would have heard such attacks for yourself including phrases like “walled compound” and even one assertion that Sufism Reoriented was a Muslim terrorist group.

    To be sure, many who object to the building are doing so because they do not like change and boast about stopping it no matter who proposes it, what the building would look like and how property values would improve.

    But a significant part of the opposition is clearly due to the nature of the faith of Sufism Reoriented.

    To prove that, substitute “cross” for “white dome” and then you'd hear people saying things like “we don't like the cross on your church's exterior. Crosses are ugly and out of keeping with the neighborhood. So if you want to build the church, use another symbol.

    That attack on the key religious element to Sufism is clear evidence of the problem


  4. Thank you for an informative article. Earlier to day I was reading Hamilton's article on the current contraception flap, in which she also mentioned RLUIPA's defects that stem from the same flawed legislative process — with only selective viewpoints at the table.

    The Board of Supervisors has an opportunity to set things right with this project.


  5. Thank you for the article.

    I would like to respond to the comment that the problem is the County and not Sufism Reoriented.

    It is Sufism Reoriented that is asking the County to base its parking on less than a room.

    The assembly hall is over 11,000 sf. Sufism wants the parking based on only 5,000 sf, or 42 percent of the room.

    Did you realize that no other county in California allows this?

    And, if the County approves this, what standard will it use in the future for other church applications?

    If they allow 42% of a room, shouldn't a church be able to ask for 40%?

    And, why not 35%?

    Where does one draw the line? Is 20% of the room enough?

    This is the problem. That is why we have laws and codes and written procedures.


  6. An interesting piece of information that became available from the Public Records Act request that was filed had to do with whether the County required the EIR, or Sufism Reoriented volunteered to have it be done as they have publicized.

    What I can report is that one Public Works staff member emailed another that they heard that the Planning Department, referred to as DCD, was requiring the EIR.


  7. Wendy and Patricia, with all due respect, you two seem to have some obsession going on about this project.

    Your concerns are really with the county ordinances, and yet you blame the Sufis for the county's decisions and codes.

    You are not fooling anyone ladies – this is about religious bigotry. It's now my understanding that NEITHER of you live in the Saranap.

    Take your beefs with the county to the county. My guess is that they know you both quite well already and probably have heard your opinions for many decades.

    Patricia – for the last time, it does not matter what the calculated square footage is; the Sufis demonstrated a reduced need and they would easily win in a courtroom on this decision alone.


  8. “the Sufis demonstrated a reduced need and they would easily win in a courtroom on this decision alone”

    There are at least a hundred different variables in play in an application such as Sufism Reoriented.

    Let's take the issue of alternatives in the EIR.

    The EIR lists three alternatives:

    1) 7 housing units
    2) 15 housing units
    3) 66,000 square foot facility

    Let me repeat: 7 units, 15 units, or 66,000 sf.

    No reasonable person in the legal sense, or judge in a court, would believe that no valid alternative exists between 15 units and 66,000 sf.

    What about 65,000 sf? Isn't that reasonable. Isn't 60,000 sf reasonable?

    In California, EIRS are required to have a reasonable range of alternatives.

    Also, this facility as proposed, without ANY CHANGES, could be built on another site. This is also a reasonable alternative.

    The EIR would not survive a court challenge on its alternatives.


  9. Patricia, I only respond since you responded to me.

    Your hyperbolic comments seem to be based on a bullet pointed read of the EIR. I wonder if you yourself read it beyond the executive summary and/or just the parts you wanted to rip on.

    That said, I have no reason to believe that you are at all qualified to tell me how I should interpret the situation.

    If there is no alternative it is because there is no alternative that even gets close to accomplishing what the Sufis need for their worship – as their lawyer said about a prior case – the law can't tell a religious group that they have to use a campus format, and therefore, if they decide that a campus does not work for them, then it can't be used as an alternative in the EIR, now can it?

    If the project is constrained by location of the members, and this one is in terms of reasonableness, as least as I see it, then they only need consider alternatives within the scope of the constraints.

    It's clear you are no lawyer or you would not think this EIR is breakable. I am not either but I have actually taken Environmental law and policy classes at a major university covering EIRs in detail; this one covered everything and the kitchen sink, ad nauseum.

    I guess I just wish you'd find a real problem to work on and not waste everyone's time with this situation. That goes for Soccer Mom and Wendy too.

    Signing out.


  10. Wendy,

    Whether or not the law should be changed is not relevant to this situation. The Supervisors are bound to follow the law unless they want to mount an expensive challenge which I doubt they would do especially since religions win such cases time and time again as the Harvard Law Review pointed out. Clearly you want to see an activist Supreme Court make law by invalidating RLUIPA but given its history over the past few years, I doubt that the Court would do so.


    You like so many are ignoring the law which states that a TDM plan is sufficient and that parking does NOT have to be based on square footage. It has been demonstrated over the past few years that Sufism's TDM plan is working.

    I think it's possible that the Supervisors will require additional monitoring of the TDM plan as one of the appellants requested. That would be a reasonable response to the concern about parking.


  11. Jerry, the TDM plan is only one aspect of this project. You want to discuss the TDM plan. Hey, great. That is your prerogative.

    Most of my comments have been about the other 99 aspects of the project.

    All those aspects are valid points of discussion. And, I will continue to discuss them.

    It seems to me that you are one caught up in the TDM plan.


  12. Guess you are familiar with:

    CITIZENS OF GOLETA VALLEY, et al., Appellants, v. BOARD OF SUPERVISORS of the County of Santa Barbara, Respondent.

    The Appellate Court agreed with the appellants that an:

    “alternative of development on a different site was not adequately considered…”

    Nor, was an alternate site adequately considered for the Sufism project. It was rejected out of hand.


  13. old fart, I don't have a dog in this fight although if pushed I'd probably err on the side of the residents. You write however that soccer mom should stop wasting peoples time….its her blog and I would imagine she can spend the time and write as she pleases or is freedom only for the poor sufis?


  14. THUD –

    I am a Saranap resident, so, good to know, I am glad to hear you would err on my side.

    Wendy, Patricia and Soccer Mom are not residents, ergo – – whoosh!


  15. Patricia, I was responding to one of the points you brought up and now you attacked me for responding to your point.

    That court case you cited was not about religious use aka RLUIPA. If you look at the Harvard Law Review link I provided, you'll see that RLUIPA cases are different.


  16. Jerry, I was not responding to you. I was responding to Old F. In responding to what I said about alternatives, he said,

    “I have actually taken Environmental law and policy classes at a major university covering EIRs in detail.”

    I was just asking if he was familiar with one of the premier decisions on CEQA and alternatives.

    That case supports what I said about the alternatives in the Sufism EIR.

    I have no comment on RILUPA.

    This is not a religious issue to me.

    It is about an unsafe curve that I traverse almost every day, having lived in the neighborhood for 33 years.


  17. Patricia, since you're not concerned with a key law that governs the Supervisor's decision about Sufism Reoriented, I'll say that in the abstract you have a valid point.

    If this were a commercial project, I could see the EIR being challenged due to lack of alternatives. That was even brought out at the hearing by the Sufi lawyer who said something about how a plan for a commercial project would be judged differently and how the size asked for would often be greater than the size required.

    But since this is a religious project where RLUIPA applies, the rules operate differently.


  18. Jerry,

    It is a pleasure to exchange thoughts with a well spoken person who understands, as I do, that there is more than one point of view.

    I believe exactly what I said at the hearing. I think the design of the building is beautiful. I have not said this before, but I also think the interior design is thoughtful, and will serve Sufism Reoriented well.

    I only regret that this particular location has been chosen, which I believe to be unsafe and inappropriate.


  19. Thanks Old Fart, Jerry, Patricia, Wendy and others for all your thoughtful comments on this project. I have written about it because I think the issues the project raises are interesting.

    Jerry raises an interesting point about the possibility of religious discrimination. If this a Catholic or mainstream Protestant congregation wanted to build a big, new inappropriate-to-the-location complex in a residential neigborhood, would the opposition be so vocal? I would like to think so. Hamilton's book mentions other church project disputes in her book.
    Maybe those groups would have more experience building churches over the past century and understand that for future community harmony they really need to get neighborhood buy-in.

    The Sufism approach — and I was approached — was here's our big new building. It's what we want and you have to like it because we're good people and our faith tells us that we know what's right.

    That's arrogance, and it's saying that our faith and our values are more important than yours. Hamilton says that it's common for faith groups to adopt this heady sense of entitlement in different church-state disputes, especially land-use disputes.

    I had previously met some very nice Sufism members and knew people who were delighted with the education their kids were receiving at the Meher school. I have a friend who has been very influenced in his spiritual life by Meher Baba teachings. The community outreach they do individually and as an organization is admirable.

    There is a lot to admire about the group — just not the design and size of this project in this location.

    Oh, and thanks Wendy for the link about the documentary. Sounds fascinating and a topic we should all be paying attention to.


  20. Wendy, the general question about RLUIPA is one of many right now including the rights of religion should be from the rights of Catholics to refuse to provide birth control, whether crosses are permitted on federal property, having “In God We Trust” on our money etc. In the recent past we also had issues about Muslim cab drivers, pharmacies providing contraception and many others.

    What the Constitution permits has been fought over between religious people and secularists for a very long time and I don't expect that to change any time soon.

    It's one of the signs of America's greatness that we can discuss and debate these very important issues.

    I think one thing is clear: with President Obama and the Democratic party wanting to be religion friendly and the Republican party coming down on the side of religion, any suggestion to change the existing law will not be taken up.

    But that does not mean we should not discuss and debate this law.


  21. It is ever amusing that people refer to “the dangerous curve!!” This intersection (and two more close by), do not NOW have, or in the projected future (in several traffic studies that WERE done), enough traffic to even warrant a traffic study! When the new facility is built with new crosswalks and a sidewalk to Warren Road, it will have adjusted sight lines that will make if much safer for everyone involved. The county could make it a four way stop (which would make it really safe), but Public Works opposes this. It is they that want the speed maintained. Talk to them!


  22. the link to the first article in March 2009 should read:

    There is a space at the end of the link that needs to be erased in order to see the article. This is the article in which the monkey allegory is described in detail, as follows, in a partial excerpt:

    ” Anonymous said…

    Anon 10:39

    Ok, first – agreeing to stipulate that you reviewed the SOS website and did not find the word cult on it, and second, agreeing that indvs here should not be confused with the SOS group,

    let's then talk about what IS on the SOS site:

    It is inferred that Sufis are “little children” and repeatedly inferred to as “little devils”. People linking religious group with the word “devil” is just not funny and implies a lot of bigotry.

    In an allegory of the Wizard of Oz, the Sufis are referred to as deceitful “Wizards”, as in “Hiding behind their cloak of “community good-deeds”, the Wizards are pulling the levers of deceit again”

    AND further, the Sufis are referred to as “flying monkeys”. If you recall, the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz attack Dorothy's group and take them by force to an evil witch.

    Since the allegory made on the site is so complete, I believe calling the Sufis “flying monkeys” is a not very veiled attempt to infer that SOS thinks Dr. Conner is an evil witch – and honestly, I simply can not believe a group of adults would think making such an reference is an ok thing to do when arguing over what should be built on a church site.

    SOS also stated that:

    “Sufism Reoriented is asking us to suspend reality and make-believe”

    “Sufism Reoriented leaders have bombarded neighbors with press releases, expensive newsletters, neighborhood meetings and one-on-one visits full of misinformation and misrepresentations.”

    “Yet since first announcing its building plans, the childlike deviousness of Sufism Reoriented leadership continues into the holiday season.”

    SOS also calls the SCA board a “new hand-picked SCA-Sufi Board” when in fact that simply was not what happened there.

    There are many of these nonsense comments made on the SOS site, but two are just so ridiculous it's worth showing why I've spent time on figuring out exactly what is going on here…”

    March 18, 2009 11:34 AM


  23. No matter what they decide, Sufism Reoriented is, in fact, a CULT. I dated someone involved with this group several years ago and he was completely insane. It was out of bounds to even consider attending the church. They built walls to keep people out! You had to apply to study there (a practice which I personally believe was to check you out, to see if you were the type of person who could be controlled and bilked out of your money). Where do they get their money? They take it from all their members. Any service projects are done by members (the guy I dated once had to go do repairs in Washington to the facility there for a full week- plus make meals for the powers that be, etc)… it was just freakin' strange!!!!


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