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USA Austin Gurdwara Asks Texas Supreme Court To Stop Its Destruction


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
By Anju Kaur, SikhNN staff writer, Washington Bureau
Posted: Wednesday, March 02, 2011 | 08:11 pm

Religious intolerance was allegedly the motivation behind a Texas couple’s court battle to stop the construction of a gurdwaaraa in their neighborhood, which ultimately resulted in an appellate court ordering the total destruction of the completed building, according to a United Sikhs’ filing in the Texas Supreme Court.

“This is not a case about religion or about the First Amendment,” said Leslie and John Bollier, in a statement to SikhNN. “This case is about a neighborhood of single family homes where the deed restrictions expressly prohibit building any structure other than a single family home.”

Driving around Bee Cave’s oldest neighborhood, just outside Austin, one would see a wide range of single-family homes, from trailer homes to modest single-family homes. There are about 27 homes on 30 lots.

“They are not upscale at all,” said Nell Penridge, former president of the neighborhood association.

“The idea that anyone would build a $650,000 home is …what?” she said. The conspicuous 4,000-square-foot house belongs to the Bolliers. It is bigger than the church, about 100 yards away. But it is not quite as big as the 4,400 square-feet gurdwaaraa nestled inside 100-foot tall thicket of trees, about half-a-mile away.

The Bolliers were not happy the idea of a “big new (commercial) structure" in their neighborhood and asked a Travis County district court to stop its construction.

“I was opposed to them on general principal,” Penridge said. “The whole thing is odd and very uncomfortable. What they stand to gain from it or what is their ultimate goal, I don’t know.”
In April 2009, the court sided with the Austin Gurdwara Sahib, and construction resumed. The Bolliers appealed.

According to their statement, the Bolliers’ lawyer warned that “if (the gurdwaaraa) continued with construction during our appeal, it would be acting at its own peril and running the risk that the building would have to be removed.”

But with only nine months to finish the structure, as required by the neighborhood deed restrictions, the $350,000 building had to be completed, said Harnek Singh Bains, president of the gurdwaaraa. It has two bathrooms, two bedrooms, one guestroom and one prayer room.

Meanwhile, the appellate court agreed with the Bolliers and ordered the building be razed to the ground. It allowed the sangat to hold services, just not in that building.

“…As the Bolliers challenge only the structure restriction, our opinion does not address the use restriction,” the justices said. “Accordingly, our holding should not be construed to bar or in any other way affect the continued holding of services on the AGS lot in the existing mobile-home temple.”

The gurdwaaraa plans had met zoning standards and were approved by the city of Bee Cave. The only restrictions on the property were the private covenants set by the homeowners of the subdivision.

The exterior structure of the gurdwaaraa met those restrictions but the court found four items in the interior that were in violation: The building could not have separate signs for his and hers bathrooms, it could not have a separate utility sink, it could not have a grease trap and it must have interior bedrooms.

“These were simple changes to make that would have brought the gurdwaaraa back into compliance,” said Hansdeep Singh, senior staff attorney for United Sikhs, an international non-governmental organization based in New York. The gurdwaaraa already has bedrooms, and the signs have been removed. The other two items can easily be removed.

“The court overstepped its bounds,” he added. “(It’s) decision was overly broad. There were no compelling reasons to issue something that extreme.”

After years of travelling more than 100 miles to San Antonio or Houston to attend gurdwaaraa, the Austin sangat collected enough money to buy land in 2001 and began using a mobile home on the lot in 2003 for services. The sangat coexisted with its neighbors for the next four years.

“The Sikh community and the temple folks have been good, reasonable and responsible neighbors,” Penridge said. “Before they went to get the building plans, there was no concern or discontent.”

She emailed the elevation drawings and plans to the neighborhood. Two neighbors indicated they were opposed to the construction. But when they found out that the Bee Cave municipality was going to accept the plans, and that it would not enforce private deed restrictions, they did not speak out, she said.

The Bolliers moved into the neighborhood in 2008, when construction began. Leslie Bollier, an attorney, filed a lawsuit to halt the work.

“She spent the dollars to file this injunction and then she gathered those two persons who opposed the construction and recruited people to support their efforts,” Penridge said.

The Bolliers, through their attorney, Keith Ward, declined to answer any questions beyond their emailed statement.

“It took 20 years to build what one court can destroy in six months,” Harnek Singh said. “Sooner or later they are going to understand that people’s faith cannot be killed.”

After the appellate court’s decision, sangat members began petitioning their neighbors to amend the covenants, and save the gurdwaaraa. They were met with great resistance.

According to court documents, the Bolliers called the police when Harnek Singh and his wife approached them, saying that they were “terrorizing” the neighborhood. When they arrived, Leslie Bollier told the police that she was no longer frightened and that “these people are nice.”

The Bolliers and another neighbor continued to lobby against changing the covenants by hand-delivering letters stating that the sangat was engaging in “devious conduct” and that the neighborhood “will no longer remain quiet,” court documents say.

Then, two of the residents blocked a couple of sangat members with their vehicles as they were driving through the neighborhood, and began shouting at them. The police caught them in the act. A criminal lawsuit is still pending.

“It’s ugly.” Harnek Singh said. “They (Bolliers) made an investment and now they want to create problems for the innocent people of the temple." According to public records, the Bolliers' home is worth more than $600,000.

"They created some kind of propaganda, and created misunderstandings in the community and the court," he added. "They are making some sort of story that property values will become a problem.”

Penridge, who still lives in the neighborhood, said she sold the lot next door for a “great price” in late 2009. “I had absolutely no problem.”

The Austin Gurdwara Sahib sangat has not been able to not get enough signatures from its neighbors.

“Hopefully, (the supreme court) will grant a review of the petition,” Hansdeep Singh said. “The Sikh community has to make enough noise to show the this goes beyond just one (local) community. It impacts us broadly.”

“In this case, an important public interest is at stake: Allowing non-parties (Sikh Community of Austin) to the litigation to freely assemble and practice their faith in the company of the sangat (congregation),” he says in the United Sikhs’ filings.

“The current climate is replete with racial/religious animus towards Muslims/Arabs or those perceived to be of Muslim/Arab descent…, courts must forcefully condemn such actions, which are masked behind seemingly lawful disputes,” the filing says.

“It all began with the New York mosque dispute at Ground Zero,” he added.

“If they deny a review, that’s the end of it.”



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