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For your Consideration: an Example of Christian Sensitivity

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Message Jann Swanson

The debate about the Islamic cultural center a few blocks from Ground Zero continues to rage even though opponents have pretty much exhausted any legal arguments they might have; not because of any court action, but through the sheer stupidity of those arguments. The Constitution says the center can be built. End of discussion. Now they are focused on the issue of sensitivity.

This of course is because all 19 of the hijackers who destroyed the World Trade Center, heavily damaged the Pentagon, and apparently intended to destroy the U.S. Capital were Muslim fanatics and their carnage was unleashed in the name of that religion. Thus, the story goes, for an apparently moderate congregation of Muslims to erect any type of building (having also lost the argument that the proposed building is a mosque, which it is not) is insensitive to the families of those who died on September 11, to first responders, and indeed to all New Yorkers. Further fueling the debate are polls that indicate that 60 percent of responders consider the building to be protected by the Constitution but still object to its construction.

Under it all is a current of "poor me" from the Christian Right, the most vocally aggrieved group in the fray. Never has anyone been so persecuted as modern day evangelicals, at least in their own self-absorbed minds. This controversy has allowed them to resurrect old offenses and the blogs are filled with a rehash of tired claims that non-Christians are trying to ruin Christmas, strip religion out of schools, and ultimately drive their God from American life. The proposed New York City construction is framed as yet another slap in the collective Christian face.

Illumination of any debate requires analogies, and they abound on both sides. Newt Gingrich has made the nastiest charges on the side of no, equating the proposed building to "erecting a Nazi sign next door to the Holocaust Museum." Defenders ask if we would ban all Catholic churches from the vicinity of day care centers or prohibit the building of a Baptist youth center within spitting distance of alleged Christian Timothy McVeigh's violence.

However, it is instructive to consider a more apt analogy that demonstrates the sensitivity of a Christian religion when it is in the driver's seat; the erection of an 83 foot spire at the top of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) Temple in Belmont, Massachusetts.

This story goes back to the 1980s when the "Mormon" church decided to build a ward (church) in the Boston suburb of Belmont Massachusetts. The neighbors opposed it, partly because it would destroy a beautiful wooded parcel of land but primarily because of traffic and parking issues. The Mormons are not Sunday Christians; their churches are consumed with activities throughout the week and, having lived next door to a ward in Utah, where it is difficult not to, I know that church traffic is a constant. Nonetheless, after compromising on the parking issue the church completed the ward in 1984. Almost immediately it was destroyed by a suspicious fire. Arson was never proved but it was one of a number of such church fires in the Boston area at the time. According to the LDS Church's own Ensign magazine, churches and citizens in Belmont and nearby towns rushed to the aid of the Mormons, providing them with space for services and activities for nearly a year and even participating in fund raising drives.

Ten years later the church hierarchy announced it would build a temple adjacent to the ward. Unlike a community center or even a mosque, Mormon temples are not open for public worship; they exist solely for secretive church sacraments such as marriages and baptisms and can be entered only by members in good standing with written authorization from their local lay leaders. Because this would be the first temple in New England, it would be Mecca for thousands of church members from throughout the region.

As in the case of the mosque, site is critical to this discussion. The ward is located off Route 2, a major road into Boston at the very crest of Belmont Hill, possibly the highest point in the metro area. Except for the highway the area is highly residential with no commercial developments within at least a mile other than a few local gas stations and neighborhood stores.

The ward, set back in the trees a hundred feet or more from the frontage road and about the same distance from the crest of the hill, is virtually invisible. Alongside the ward however, the hill looms some 50 feet directly over Route 2 and commands the entire area. That is where the Mormons proposed to build a 94,000 square foot temple 58 feet tall. The roof of the building would be at least 100 feet above dozens if not hundreds of surrounding homes and would cast a shadow over many of them through a major portion of the day. Even worse, the plans included six spires ranging in height from 24 feet to 98 feet. All Mormon temples have spires, on the tallest of which sits a gold statue of the Angel Moroni, a major figure in Mormon theology.

A suburban neighborhood certainly does not carry the gravitas or emotional weight of a virtual graveyard for thousands of people, but it was still the home of hundreds of homeowners who were entitled to the quiet enjoyment of those homes and, given the history of the site, the church hierarchy certainly should have anticipated that the neighbors would not be happy about the temple. Indeed Belmont, and to a lesser extent neighboring Arlington, erupted, but there really wasn't much the citizens could do. Without the spires the building met local codes and a Massachusetts statute called the Dover Law effectively makes it impossible to block construction of either a church or a school. That didn't stop the locals from trying. They cited traffic, esthetics, and finally sensitivities. Their actions following the fire had proven, certainly to the church's satisfaction, that religion was not the issue; site appropriateness was.

After much tumult, the church agreed to reduce the size of the church to 68,000 square feet and its height to 56 feet. The six spires would be replaced by one, 83 feet tall. The compromise did nothing to mitigate the concerns about traffic and little to reduce the shadow the building would cast and the remaining spire still violated height restrictions, but the town dropped its objections. The neighbors, however, were still furious and four of them sued to enforce the height restrictions. The church contested their right to sue, but both the Middlesex Superior Court and its Supreme Judicial Court ruled that at least one neighbor had standing "because of the extreme visual impact" of the steeple. While the case wended its way through the courts, the church completed and dedicated its topless edifice.

The Superior Court ruled that the church must adhere to height restrictions because the spire was not a necessary element of its religion. On appeal, however, the Supreme Judicial Court, to the surprise of legal experts who said that the ruling "punched a hole" in the state's zoning laws, reversed the Superior Court ruling saying that it was inappropriate for the lower court to enquire beyond whether the structure served a religious purpose to whether it was a necessary one. Freed from legal restrictions and apparently from any inclination to be sensitive, the Mormon Church topped off its temple with the 83 foot spire.

As an aside, after the death of Teddy Kennedy last year it was rumored that the church may have played even less fair with the citizens of Belmont and Arlington. Several well placed but anonymous sources confirmed a remark made by Kennedy's BFF, Utah Senator Orin Hatch, during his eulogy that he had pressured the Massachusetts senator to step in and influence the courts to permit the spire. This has not been officially confirmed, but one party to the dispute commented that "Even more troubling (than learning that Kennedy might have intervened) was Mr. Hatch's boasting and laughing at Senator Kennedy's funeral about a breach of the public trust."

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I am a full-time free-lance writer convinced she is the only progressive living in Coastal Georgia. I relocated south from New England almost seven years ago and the culture shock is still profound. The winters, however, are wonderful and while (more...)
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