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Suburban Bostonians try to halt completion of Mormon temple

The Associated Press


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Boston temple o...
Boston temple of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints under construction on Dec. 29 atop a hill overlooking Route 2 in Belmont, Mass.

BOSTON — The 69,000-square-foot Mormon temple sits atop a hill, dominating the upscale residential neighborhood of single-family homes in suburban Boston. When complete, it will draw crowds of Mormons from all over the northeast and Canada for baptisms, marriages and other ceremonial events.

Neighbors are praying that day will never come. Three residents now plan to ask a federal appeals court to halt construction, even though the building is already 80% complete. They say the Massachusetts zoning law, which allowed the temple to be built in Belmont, violates the First Amendment by giving advantages to religious groups.

"If an atheist group wanted to build the same thing the Mormons wanted to, they couldn't do it," said Mark White, one of the attorneys representing the three residents who filed the lawsuit.

The statute, known as the Dover Amendment, prohibits zoning restrictions on the use of property for religious purposes. The residents argue it discriminates against non-religious groups and is therefore unconstitutional.

"In most towns, the zoning regulations are pretty strict," White said. "In some towns, you can't even park your car on the street. And yet under Dover, if you are a religious organization, you can put up an 70,000-square-foot building. This makes no sense."

The lawsuit was filed in August 1998 by Margaret Boyajian, Charles Counselman and Jean Dickinson. A federal judge denied their claims last June, upholding the constitutionality of the Dover Amendment.

Oral arguments are to be heard today in the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. No decision is expected immediately.

Counselman, a professor of planetary science at the Massachusetts Institute of Science, insists he and his neighbors aren't biased against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He says they only object to the size of the temple.

"This temple building is not only much larger than the houses around it, but it also sits on the highest point in town," Counselman said. "It towers over the neighborhood.

"It will be a big attention-getter, which is not what you want in the neighborhood that you live in," he said.

The church has continued construction on the $30 million temple, and is scheduled to be finished in late winter or early spring, says Ken Harvey, a lawyer for the Mormon church.

The majestic building features a 139-foot-tall steeple — about two-thirds the height of the 221-foot tall Bunker Hill Monument in Boston.

Counselman says he wants the building demolished, even though it is nearly complete.

"When we filed the suit, there was only a hole in the ground," he said. "The defendants were on notice and they proceeded at their own risk."

Harvey says that although the building is large, it is located about a football field's length from the nearest building and does not unfairly encroach upon any residents' homes, which is why the zoning board approved the plans.

The neighbors are mischaracterizing the Dover Amendment, he says.

"We think that the statute and the case law is pretty clear," Harvey said. "We think that the Dover Amendment is very clear in its attempts to protect groups, such as religion, from discrimination."

The Catholic Church, the American Jewish Congress and a number of Protestant churches have filed briefs supporting the Mormon church's position, Harvey says.

The temple has strong symbolic significance in the Mormon faith, he says. Day-to-day religious functions are held in a meeting house, which is much smaller. The temple is used for three main ceremonies, called ordinances: baptism, endowment, which recognizes a member's acceptance of church doctrine, and marriage. Most Mormons only attend a temple once in their lives, Harvey says.

"Temples are special," said Harvey, who is a Mormon. "They are very sacred and the most important building in the Mormon faith."