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State Supreme Court Upholds Results Of Buddhist Temple Election

By John Lyon, The Morning News, March 6, 2008

LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas (USA) -- A Sebastian County circuit judge did not violate the U.S. Constitution when he decided who could vote in an election at a Buddhist temple in Fort Smith, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The Supreme Court upheld the results of the temple's September 2006 election of its board of directors, rejecting arguments that Circuit Judge James Marschewski, now a U.S. magistrate, violated the constitutional separation of church and state in the case.

Marschewski ordered the temple to hold the election to resolve a lawsuit over who should control the temple. A group of temple members filed the suit in 2005, alleging that another faction within the temple had seized control in violation of the temple's 1989 bylaws.

A cross complaint by then-Abbot Phra Sagob Parisanto and 11 others alleged it was the plaintiffs who violated the bylaws and that the 1989 bylaws were not valid.

Marschewski ruled that the 1989 bylaws were valid, and he ordered the temple to elect a new board of directors. He appointed Fort Smith lawyer and former Justice Brad Jesson to oversee the election, and Sebastian County election officials agreed to let the temple rent county-owned voting machines for the election.

After the two sides in the case disagreed over who should be considered a temple member and therefore eligible to vote, Marschewski ordered both sides to submit a list of names and ruled that the people on both lists would be eligible.

The election resulted in the plaintiffs' candidates obtaining all seven positions on the board. Shortly after the election, the new board fired the abbot and nine monks and ejected 41 members.

Marschewski later denied a motion by the defendants to vacate the election results. The defendants appealed that ruling to the state Supreme Court, arguing that under the temple's bylaws, anyone who had attended and worshipped at the temple should have been considered a member, yet hundreds of people who met that definition were excluded from the list of eligible voters.

The defendants also argued that the question of who could vote was a religious question, not a secular one, so Marschewski erred in ruling on the matter.

In its opinion upholding the election results, the Supreme Court said courts can decide legal issues involving the ownership and control of church property, provided the decisions are based on legal, not religious, principals.

"It is apparent to this court that in determining that an election was required under the 1989 bylaws and in supervising that election when the temple members proved incapable of conducting it on their own, the circuit court and its special master did not delve into matters that were essentially religious in nature, but rather applied neutral principals of law concerning election procedures," Justice Robert Brown wrote in the Supreme Court's unanimous opinion.

The court also noted that people who were not on the list of eligible voters were allowed to cast provisional ballots. Even if those provisional ballots were included in the election results, the same seven people would win, so Marschewski's ruling was not prejudicial to the faction that lost the election, the court ruled.

The defendants further argued in their appeal that the temple was affiliated with the Dhammayut denomination of Buddhism, and the directors chosen in the 2006 election did not have authority to fire the Dhammayut abbot and monks and install an abbot or monks not affiliated with that denomination.

The Supreme Court disagreed.

"The 1989 bylaws make no mention of an intention of the temple to be Dhammayut, but they do express an intention to provide a place of worship for all Buddhists, regardless of race or national origin," Brown wrote.


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