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Editorial: Zen and zoning

Bell Acres reconsiders harsh limits on religion

Monday, December 04, 2000

Maybe now there can be unity and oneness in Bell Acres. A dispute between the borough and the newly opened Zen Center of Pittsburgh on Willow Ridge Road is about to be settled, say attorneys for both sides. But not before some ugly publicity about unreasonable limits council tried to establish.

Formerly a private residence, the center purchased the building in August for $250,000 from the aunt of Rev. Kyoki Roberts, who operates the Buddhist temple. It sits in an R-2 (residential) zoning district, which requires a conditional use permit from the borough before use for religious purposes.

Council approved the center's application for a conditional use in the rural setting near Sewickley, but with 15 conditions. Most of them fell within the usual purview of the borough's zoning code (parking spaces to accommodate visitors, for instance). But council clearly overreached with Condition No. 10, which restricted the Zen Buddhists to meditation and services on Sunday mornings only. We wonder if the same limits would have been placed on Methodists or Presbyterians.

The American Civil Liberties Union argued that the government was restricting the members' freedom to exercise their religion. It's hard to see how the borough would have won in court.

On Thursday, Bell Acres Solicitor John Dohanich and ACLU/Pittsburgh chapter head Witold Walczak said they've come to terms. A new list of conditions for the center will be considered by council Dec. 11. Gone is the Condition No. 10. Other restrictions have either been deleted or revised to address the legitimate obligations of a place of religious worship under the borough's zoning ordinance.

In the end, it appears that reason and harmony will prevail. Too bad, early on, council didn't meditate on the Bill of Rights.

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