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Suspicions About Faith Underlie Town's Fight Over Steeple

First, residents refuse to allow a 13-story tower. Now they are appealing to the Supreme Court to remove the entire temple.

September 19, 2000|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELMONT, Mass. — High on a hill that commands a splendid view of Boston, New England's first Mormon temple is set to open--with no steeple and embroiled in a bitter controversy.

In a dispute that has slogged through the state and federal courts for four years, a small but tenacious coalition of neighbors contends the three-story temple threatens the character of a bedroom community known for decades as "a town of homes."

It's a familiar battle in many communities nationwide, and in Belmont, local opposition forced the Mormon Church to scale back a design featuring six golden spire towers--the main one 13 stories tall and topped with a statue of the angel Moroni. A state judge sided with property owners who fought a compromise plan for a single 139-foot steeple.

As it stands, the 94,000-square-foot house of worship scheduled to open Oct. 1 looks sadly incomplete.

"It's a gorgeous building, it has a wonderful entryway and it goes up to a stubby top that's just begging for a steeple," said Bruce Olsen, a church official visiting from Salt Lake City.

The debate goes beyond both this church tower and this comfortable community of 25,000. The world's 100th Mormon temple debuts in an atmosphere of admiration for the hard-working heritage of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and suspicion of its rituals and recruitment programs. Officials from the church and town alike speculate that bias against one of the world's fastest-growing denominations may account for some resistance.

Neighbors to Appeal to Supreme Court

Also at stake is the question of what kind of authority cities and towns should hold over the design and size of buildings used for religious and educational purposes. With a 50-year-old provision known as the Dover Amendment on its books, Massachusetts is among a number of states that exempt religious and educational institutions from conventional zoning restrictions, permitting construction in residential areas such as the neighborhood where the Belmont temple now looms.

On the federal level, both houses of Congress passed a similar measure, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, on July 27. President Clinton is expected to sign the bill soon.

The measure, which states that zoning regulations cannot "place a substantial burden on exercise of religion," grew out of contentious battles in the last decade involving houses of worship nationwide. Muslim leaders in Culver City, Calif., for example, were barraged with complaints about everything from possible traffic congestion to sun glare off the marble when they tried to build a mosque. The mosque eventually opened last year, but only after many concessions.

Charles Counselman, a professor of astronomy at MIT, is among the Belmont neighbors who say the Massachusetts law discriminates in favor of religious groups because nonreligious organizations would be barred from building at the Mormon temple site.

"I and my neighbors and our lawyers believe the law is clearly unconstitutional," said Counselman, who helped form an organization, Action for Neighborhood Zoning, to fight the temple.

In an area where three-bedroom houses run upward of $600,000, about 100 neighbors have contributed to a legal fund, Counselman said. The temple opponents lost two rounds in federal court and plan to file a U.S. Supreme Court petition before the high court's Wednesday deadline. Counselman said the group wants the temple torn down.

But Boston lawyer Paul Killeen, who is representing the Mormon Church, called the neighbors' effort "from my perspective, totally nuts."

The steeple conundrum, however, is a different matter, Killeen said. While Belmont has no absolute limits on heights for "uninhabited projections" such as a steeple or tower, the town does permit projections that are 10 feet tall, or 20% of roof height, whichever is greater. Killeen, sitting in an office across from the soaring steeple of Old North Church in Boston, said the town's restriction rules out anything resembling a traditional New England church steeple.

Killeen has appealed the state court's ban on the temple steeple.

Grant Bennett, a high-ranking Mormon Church official here, said the steeple--with the angel Moroni blowing his horn to herald the return of the gospel to the world--has tremendous symbolic significance in his faith.

"The temple is meant to elevate the soul upward and to cause one to think about higher things and to enter into higher commitments with God, and obviously a steeple draws the eye upward," Bennett said.

About 40,000 Mormons reside in New England, where, in a sense, their faith has its roots. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, founders of the 170-year-old denomination, both hailed from Vermont. After Smith was murdered in 1844 by an anti-Mormon mob in Illinois, Young and his disciples moved to the territory that became Utah.

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