City of Virginia Beach, monks reach agreement, Mar 16, 2009

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (USA) -- The City of Virginia Beach has reached an agreement with the Buddhist Education Center of America, which could allow a group of Buddhist monks to hold limited religious services in a Pungo home.

City Council will consider issuing a conditional use permit, allowing the monks to use the property on West Neck Road for religious purposes. Under the terms of the agreement, the monks would only be allowed to have services on Sundays between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Also, other than in the event of the death of a congregant or immediate family member of a congregant, there would be no more than 20 people permitted on the site at any one time for the Sunday services. The permit states they cannot hold festivals or special events on the property.

The agreement also states there is no admission of liability by the City of Virginia Beach.

Neighbors complained the monks' services caused too much traffic and crowds.

In August 2007, Virginia Beach City Council voted unanimously to allow the monks to hold services at the private home for one year. After that, they were required to find another place to stay.

One year later, in August 2008, the city refused to extend a conditional use permit, which would allow them to operate a temple in a home.

The following month , the monks filed a federal lawsuit against Virginia Beach claiming the city was violating their constitutional right of religious freedom.

City Attorney Mark Stiles said, “This has been a land use issue from the very beginning and not a religious issue. The intent of the proposed agreement is to preserve the residential and agricultural character of the community while allowing the temple members to continue their Sunday worship services with the larger festivals moved to another location.”

"I think that the monks have the right to stay here," said Christopher Truang, a Buddhist.

Federal law protects religious institutions and houses of worship from discrimination in zoning and landmarking laws.

A stipulation of the settlement asks the federal court to refer this matter back to the Virginia Beach City Council to consider whether to issue the permit after public notice and a public hearing.