Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

The Case of the Sikh Temple

By Mark Ralkowski

The families who live in the Evergreen district of San Jose love their neighborhood: orchards, deer, oak trees-a reminder of what the rest of San Jose used to look like before the encroachment of development. The same serenity attracted Bob Singh Dhillon when he first saw the sprawling apricot orchards of the district; he was certain he had found the ideal site for his congregation's Sikh temple. Rural and detached from the busyness of the nearby city-much like the original temples in India, where Sikhism was founded 500 years ago-the district seemed the perfect host to a temple of immense architectural and religious grandeur. He arranged for the purchase of 40 acres.

Plans for the temple were developed, calling for numerous interconnected buildings-a total of 94,000 square feet, including at least one facade over 316 feet long; in some places the temple will rise to more than 60 feet. Even from a distance, marble balconies, tiled arches, and water fountains will be visible on the temple campus, which, in addition to being a center for worship, is intended to provide a residence for many priests. The proposed building will cost from $6 million to $8 million. Opponents and proponents agree, the structure should prove to be extraordinarily beautiful.

Ironically, the beauty of the site is a chief cause for concern among Evergreen residents, many of whom believe the temple may become a tourist attraction, causing traffic problems and the degradation of the tranquil lifestyle of their neighborhood. At the least, thousands of Sikhs are expected to visit the temple regularly. There are more than 45,000 Sikhs living in the Bay Area.

Many Evergreen residents think their neighborhood is not suitable for a facility this size, nor for the people it is expected to accommodate. The congregation plans to have gatherings of up to 1,500 people, though only one two-lane road approaches the site. The traffic, opponents argue, will cause commuting problems and introduce hazards on roads frequented by children and bicyclists. Increased traffic could also have an adverse impact on the environment.

But many temple proponents see a more insidious reason behind the opposition: prejudice. For example, an appeal to the city to stop construction cited problems at a Sikh temple in nearby Fremont, calling the Sikhs "undesirable neighbors." Some wonder if those who object to the temple are not, at bottom, motivated by racial and religious biases.

But members of the Evergreen Citizens Coalition, which opposes the construction, insist that racism has nothing to do with it. "I want to make it clear to everybody that the Evergreen Citizens Coalition is opposed to any type of development that would allow traffic to congregate in one area," Coalition Chairman Walter Neal told the San Jose Mercury News. "It could be a Safeway, a 7-Eleven, a Catholic Church. It has nothing to do with any type of religious or cultural differences at all. It's an issue with size and location. A church of this size is a regional facility."

In answer to the opposition, city planners have assured Evergreen residents that the Sikhs have followed all of the city's guidelines and zoning regulations relevant to the foothills. They see no reason to stop the construction.

In addition, the city has gone to great lengths to see that the temple does not become an overbearing venue. All meetings in the temple are restricted to no more than 1,500 people; if there are consequent traffic congestion problems, the temple officials are required to provide traffic control for the nearby area; and to ensure harmony, temple officials are required to meet with residents twice a year to iron out any problems.

In December 1997, the opponents of the Sikh temple filed a lawsuit against the city of San Jose to stop construction. Their suit alleged that the city failed to prepare an adequate environmental impact report and, more importantly, did not properly notify residents of the proposed structure while it was still in its nascent, flexible stages of planning. The city is required to mail letters to residents within a 300-foot radius of any building project, but, due to the rural nature of the neighborhood, only 34 homes fell within that range and received a letter.

Imagine you are a member of the San Jose City Council, meeting to decide whether the project should go forward despite the suit. There are at least three potential courses of action:

  1. The council can ignore the virulent opposition from Evergreen residents and allow the temple to be built in accordance with existing regulations.

  2. The council can prohibit the construction, pleasing the residents while causing distress among the thousands of Sikhs counting on the new temple.

  3. As a compromise, the city can place additional building regulations on the temple or insist on modifications to the design. But there's one important caveat to this option: The size and shape of the proposed temple has religious significance. Any modifications would alter the Sikh symbol of the divine represented by the architecture.

Are the Sikhs' rights violated by such modifications?

Have the Evergreen district residents raised legitimate concerns, or does their opposition to the Sikh temple show religious intolerance or cultural bias?

Were the city's laws pertaining to the notification of residents ethical?

Should the Sikhs be forced to compromise the structure of their temple in favor of the tranquil lifestyle enjoyed by a small collection of neighbors?

Mark Ralkowski is a research assistant at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. He prepared this case for a Center presentation, "Ethics for Public Officials and Those Considering Public Service," sponsored by Leadership Santa Clara at Intel Corp.

Fall 1998

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