A Hindu resident of the Murano at 2101 Market St. has filed a federal lawsuit alleging religious discrimination by the condo association at the luxury 43-story building of gleaming glass and spectacular views, where homeowners pay more than $1,000 a month in fees.
At the heart of the conflict between Akhilesh Tripathi and the Murano Condominium Association is a symbol known as a toran, which has hung for almost a decade across the top of his front door, attached to either side of the door frame. Tripathi, born in India, lives in a 23rd-floor condo adorned with a shrine and decorated with religious symbols and artwork.
A toran is a Hindu and Buddhist symbol meant to welcome guests into a home. It is believed to be pleasing and attractive to the Hindu goddess of wealth, said Tripathi, 64, speaking as classical Hindu music played softly in his condo.
"The symbol of toran is saying this house is blessed with God and Lakshmiji and you are welcome here," said Tripathi, an insurance and technology consultant who formerly worked as a technology executive and as an engineering professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
"This is my upbringing and my deeply embedded religious belief," said Tripathi, a single father of two adult children who lives with Kishan, a cat, and Krish, a dog, both named after the god Krishna, and another dog, Kaniya.
His toran, a gift from his daughter, is made of gold-colored metal chains, bells, and multicolored balls of fabric. It was blessed by a Hindu priest before it was hung when Tripathi moved into the Murano in 2009.
But as of February, the condo association says it is not welcome at the Murano, where units range in price from $300,000 to more than $900,000.
The association's attorney, Monica Littman, declined to comment about Tripathi's lawsuit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.
The suit seeks preliminary and permanent injunctions barring the association from removing the toran or directing Tripathi to do so; and seeks awards for actual and punitive damages and attorneys' fees and costs. It says the association adopted a new policy regulating the placement of holiday decorations and religious symbols on residents' front door areas Feb. 13.
"The association's regulation expressly permits certain religious symbols to be permanently attached to a door frame, such as a Jewish mezuzah (which the regulation specifically references), but has been invoked by the association to forbid plaintiff's Hindu toran," says the lawsuit, filed by Kevin Toth, Tripathi's attorney.
"When the plaintiff refused to remove the toran from his doorway, defendant notified him that if he does not remove it, defendant would remove it," the lawsuit states.
The association's new regulation and the manner in which it is being enforced constitute disparate treatment of Tripathi and are based on his religious beliefs, which violates anti-discrimination provisions of the Fair Housing Act, Toth said Thursday in his client's condo.
"The Fair Housing Act is designed to guard against creating a situation where an individual like Mr. Tripathi is not welcome in this building," Toth said. "He is confident that his rights are going to be vindicated. He is confident that he is going to be able to continue to be able to follow his religion while living here."
When the association sent him a letter ordering him to remove the toran, he defiantly wrote back, "Don't you touch it," Tripathi said.
The association threatened to slap him with fines, sanctions, and suspension of his condo privileges if he didn't. He hired Toth instead, and has no plans to take it down or to move out. He wants his neighbors to know what's going on, and hopes they'll speak up for him and others who he believes are being discriminated against by the association's new policy.
"I think it's a wonderful community, a wonderful place to live. A lot of really good people here. I think it's a couple people on the board and management who are somewhat backwards," he said, "maybe narrow-minded, and they are the ones who want it out."