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Hindu group, aiming to build temple, alleges discrimination by Henderson

Updated May 14, 2024 - 7:28 pm

After it says it is being blocked by a Henderson ordinance from building a Hindu temple on a 5-acre patch of land in a rural neighborhood, a local Hindu group accuses the city of discrimination.

The association is now appealing to the federal government to intervene on its behalf.

The American Hindu Association says a city ordinance that was updated in 2023 to restrict the construction of religious institutions in the neighborhood where it had bought the land for about $450,000 in 2021 is discriminatory and violates their constitutional rights.

‘Unduly burdened’

The group alleges it was the culmination of a series of obstacles put in the way of temple’s construction by Henderson.

“From the onset, AHA’s efforts and its application process and approvals necessary to commence construction have been unduly burdened, delayed or otherwise stonewalled by the (city of Henderson),” the association alleges in a letter to the Department of Justice.

The group, which said it first started meeting with the city to discuss its intention to build a temple in October 2021, is appealing to the Department of Justice with the hope that federal officials will find that Henderson is in violation of a federal law that aims to protect religious institutions from discrimination in zoning laws.

“I am very sure that justice will prevail,” said Satish Bhatnagar, who is the association’s president and a longtime UNLV math professor. “It may be delayed, but it will not be denied.”

For the city’s part, a spokesman said in an email that the change of the ordinance was not targeted at any specific use or group and that the ordinance was updated “to preserve the rural lifestyle of the residents in the area.”

“The City did not change the Code to disallow the temple,” Justin Emerson, the city of Henderson’s public information officer, said in an email.

“The updated ordinance states that large, intensive uses are no longer permitted, including airports, police and fire stations, cemeteries, shooting ranges, etc., and religious assemblies and schools may not be located on certain streets in rural neighborhoods,” Emerson’s email also stated.

The proposed temple, which would be called the Anand Utsav Mandir and would be built on a plot of land at Lisbon Street and Berlin Avenue, in a neighborhood just east of Lake Mead Parkway and south of East Athens Avenue, was initially approved by the city’s planning commission in 2022.

Development rules changed

After that, neighborhood residents who were opposed to its construction appealed the decision to the Henderson City Council, which then voted 4-1 in October 2022 — the lone vote against the temple was then-councilwoman Michelle Romero, now the city’s mayor — to deny the appeal while setting dozens of requirements for the temple that were outlined in a conditional use permit that would expire about a year later.

“While Religious Assembly is no longer allowed on minor collector streets, the Hindu Temple was approved and would have been allowed to move forward had they met the conditions before the Conditional Use Permit expired,” Emerson wrote in the email.

But a month earlier, in September 2023, the association noted in its letter, the city changed its development rules. According to the ordinance, religious institutions and schools could now only be built on certain streets in rural neighborhoods — streets that did not front the land where the temple was proposed.

The conditional use permit expired Oct. 10, 2023, said the association’s secretary, Baba Anal, who said the group filed to extend the conditional use permit on Oct. 17, 2023. According to the letter, the city denied the extension request two days later. Anal said the group had not expected that the city would deny the extension and believed it was common practice for such extensions to be granted.

‘A little bit of ignorance, a little bit of maybe prejudice’

A group of local residents has become organized in their efforts to prevent the temple from being built. On a website that outlines why they want to preserve the rural feel of their neighborhood, they say the temple complex “will destroy the character of our neighborhood.”

On Monday, Bhatnagar, 84, and Anal, 73, as well as a supporter, Aric Weishan, 37, placed a sign on the land that alleges they are victims of religious discrimination by the city.

Bhatnagar said he suspects “a little bit of ignorance, a little bit of maybe prejudice” among some of those who have opposed the building of the proposed temple.

Emerson said the association is welcome to meet with city officials about a possible alternate location.

“Religious Assembly is still an allowed use in rural neighborhoods on primary streets and in other parts of the City,” Emerson’s statement said. “Representatives from the Hindu Temple are encouraged to continue collaboration with the City to discuss alternate locations that meet City code.”

Anal said that if the Department of Justice ultimately does not rule in its favor, the association will “for sure, 100 percent” sue the city in federal court.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Nevada, which is part of the Department of Justice, said in an email the office didn’t have any comment Monday.

Contact Brett Clarkson at bclarkson@reviewjournal.com.

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