In a bucolic Chester County township that values open space, a Hindu sect's request to build a temple about two-thirds the size of a football field has caused a stir.
The group, which has been meeting in a West Pikeland Township farmhouse since 2000, says a new complex is needed not for its small congregation but rather for its statues, which become living gods once installed. And those living gods, members say, need their space.
On March 16, the township rejected the request for a 35,470-square-foot temple complex, approving a 5,000-square-foot building. So the group has turned to a higher authority: a federal judge.
In a suit filed two weeks ago, the Adhiparasakthi Charitable, Medical, Educational and Cultural Society of North America accuses West Pikeland of violating the group's religious rights and labels residents "hostile to non-Christian observances."
ACMEC - members of the Om Sakthi faith, which worships the goddess Adhiparasakthi - has several dozen regular congregants and a national following estimated at 200 to 250 families.
The site, on Conestoga Road in Chester Springs, includes a stucco farmhouse, a deteriorating 19th-century stone barn, and several outbuildings on 241/2 acres. The sect wants to raze them and construct a 20-foot-tall temple with a 55-foot main spire and an auxiliary building.
The tract, once a dairy farm, is in a residential district in the township, which has about 3,200 residents. West Pikeland's rich heritage includes a Revolutionary War hospital and the Yellow Springs Inn, a spa where colonial visitors bathed in coveted mineral waters.
The suit accuses the township's "predominantly white" Christian residents of fearing "an influx of Hindus."
West Pikeland Solicitor Guy A. Donatelli disagrees that the township's decision, which came after eight hearings over six months and generated hundreds of pages of testimony, was dictated by any anti-Hindu sentiment.
"I think it was directed at the size, scope, and scale of this applicant's request," he said.
Richard Lipow, the plaintiffs' attorney, has a different view. He said the township's engineer had found his clients' plan "feasible for conditional use." Lipow described opponents of the temple as "fearful" of the unknown.
"These people don't look like them: They're smaller, brown, they have accents, and they're all from India," he said.
Om Sakthi's Web site said that because the movement originated in southern India, most devotees are Hindu and retain most of these beliefs. According to a 2007 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 0.4 percent of U.S. adults practice Hinduism, which is practiced primarily in India.
Bangaru Adigalar, the group's spiritual leader, or guru, made his first U.S. visit in August 2000 and blessed the West Pikeland site for purchase. He is believed by 20 million devotees to be the incarnation of a Hindu deity.
The suit is not the first confrontation between the sides. ACMEC applied for a special exception to operate as a place of worship in 2001.
Registered in New Jersey as a nonprofit organization, ACMEC told the township it planned to renovate the farmhouse for weekly services for no more than 50 members in the Philadelphia region, records said.
An ACMEC representative testified that the guru had vetoed a proposal to build a 33,000-square-foot temple, telling members to "build a small place of worship and do some farming" there.
The township approved the special exception in 2002, but attached conditions that included a prohibition on expansion without approval from the township.
Donatelli said the arrangement had appeared to satisfy everyone. "No one appealed the decision," he said.
Lawrence and Susan O'Donnell, who own a contiguous property, had relied on the group's "testimony under oath" that no future structure would exceed 5,000 square feet, said the couple's attorney, Fronefield Crawford Jr.
During the township hearings that began in August, Sriram Adhimoolam, an ACMEC spokesman, said the 5,000 square feet referred only to the central portion of the temple, not the outlying area mandated by the guru for the multiple "deities residing within."
Donatelli asked Adhimoolam what had changed in seven or eight years to make a new structure necessary.
"Nothing has changed," Adhimoolam responded.
However, he later suggested an economic reason.
"If you have money, you want to live in a house. If you have more money, you want to build a mansion. It's just the way it is," he testified.
Adhimoolam also testified that ACMEC did not want "to make anything bigger than it has to be" for cost reasons. He declined to give the temple's cost.
Residents' questions about how the group planned to fund the project were ruled inadmissible, but the Om Sakthi Web site offers sponsorship, such as funding a $30,000 door or pillar, and lists contact phone numbers in eight states.
During the hearings, Lipow deemed questions about the group's motives, architecture, and finances irrelevant.
"They have a right to practice their religion the way they want" without government interference, he said, adding that the township has to have "a compelling state interest" to deny the application.
In its denial, the township cited the plan's failure to resolve environmental and zoning requirements, concluding that it "presents an intensity of development on a piece of ground that simply cannot accommodate it."
The supervisors' decision also noted Adhimoolam's testimony that the group had reduced the number of proposed deities.
"ACMEC made a decision as to the number of deities it thought was practical; there is no evidence that that number of deities is required," the township decision said.
Despite the lawsuit, Lipow said he would not rule out a compromise that would generate "mutual dissatisfaction," the primary ingredient for a settlement.
"The only thing that's not negotiable is the size of the temple," he said.
About the Adhiparasakthi Charitable, Medical, Educational and Cultural Society of North America:
Origin: 1971 in Melmaruvathur, India.
Spiritual leader: His Holiness Bangaru Adigalar.
Chief deity: Supreme Goddess Adhiparasakthi.
Followers: 200 to 250 families in the United States, two million worldwide.
Web site: www.omsakthi.org.