Buddhist & Catholic Shrines Resort to Court

     FONDA, N.Y. (CN) – A worker at a Buddhist temple near Albany sued a Catholic shrine next door, asking it to remove a log barrier from a shared access road, and an apology for the inconvenience.
     The road closure is “unauthorized” and contrary to the doctrine of “love your neighbor,” Yik Cheng claims in a pro se complaint in Montgomery County Supreme Court.
     Cheng, a religious worker at the Western Supreme Buddha Temple in Fultonville, about an hour west of Albany, sued the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs Inc., Father George Belgarde, a Jesuit who is director of the shrine, and Larry Steiger, superintendent of buildings and grounds.
     Cheng claims the defendants blocked the access road with tree trunks.
     The shrine was once the Mohawk Indian village of Ossernenon, where three Jesuit missionaries were martyred in the 1640s, according to the group’s website. The village was the birthplace of Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be made a Catholic saint.
     Established in 1885, the 400-acre shrine includes five chapels, two museums and a Jesuit cemetery. It is a site for pilgrimages and masses, and last year hosted thousands who came to celebrate Tekakwitha’s canonization in October.
     The Western Supreme Buddha Temple is in the shrine’s former retreat house, which an affiliated group, the American Sports Committee, bought from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany in 2005.
     According to The Daily Gazette in Schenectady, the American Sports Committee, a group of Chinese Buddhist missionaries who teach yoga, paid $500,000 for the three-story retreat house and 76 acres of land.
     According to the complaint, the blocked road is the primary access to the temple, although a narrow stone road the Buddhists built to the south also leads there. The Gazette, which reported on the barrier in April, said the stone road is best used with a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
     The newspaper said a letter sent to the Buddhists indicated that shrine officials were concerned the shared road was deteriorating, and so would limit use to shrine visitors.
     The tree trunks were laid across the road April 1, according to the complaint, along with a “Closed” sign. Other signs and yellow tape were added the next week.
     “Father Belgarde personally confronted the plaintiff and another member of the organization, who did not know the road was blocked, and reacted angrily when we tried to enter the shrine from our accustomed route, and spoke angrily when we approached him to inquire about the situation,” Cheng says in the complaint.
     “Father Belgarde took an openly hostile stance toward our temple and our members, and refused to discuss or consider a compromise like his predecessors,” Cheng adds.
     Belgarde became director of the shrine in 2011, according to the shrine’s website.
     Cheng claims the road closure violates First Amendment rights to freedom of religion and public assembly.
     “Freedom of religion inevitably includes the access to a place for the purpose of worship,” the complaint states.
     It claims the “Closed” sign at the barrier will confuse tourists who may think the temple is closed, and will discourage shrine pilgrims who might want to visit the temple, too.
     “The barricade erected by Father Belgarde and Larry Steiger will both physically and symbolically cut off our interaction with the visitors and pilgrims who come to the shrine and leave both sides more isolated,” the complaint states.
     Cheng wants the defendants ordered to remove the signs and barrier, and a permanent injunction to prohibit a future road closing.
     Cheng also seeks court costs, legal fees, and an apology.

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