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Boro court orders election for Hindu temple directors

At the temple at 45-57 Bowne St., a group of six devotees took their fight to court and ultimately won, setting the stage for the first-ever election for the 11 trustees and president of the 33-year-old house of worship.

The six petitioners - older men, including an ordained Hindu priest in his 80s and a retired accountant in his 70s - filed suit in 2001 because they want democratic elections for the temple officials who are accountable for the $22 million annual budget.

Also at issue is the membership of the temple. The Hindu Society of America, which opened in 1970, has no official membership, said Uma Mysorekar, the president of the temple.

"Ever since its inception in 1970, there has never been an election in this temple ... never," she said. "Even those who were in the initial board, the founders, upheld the way it is done today."

There are 21,400 people on a temple mailing list, with subscribers all over the country but mostly in the tri-state area. Mysorekar said that during a normal week, 3,000 to 4,000 people visit the temple regularly.

Trustees are appointed every four years by the existing board members, a practice that the petitioners challenged in State Supreme Court in Jamaica in February 2001. The court ruled against requiring elections at the temple.

The group appealed that decision and won its case for elections at the temple in August 2003. As part of the ruling, Long Island lawyer Anthony Piacentini was appointed to act as a referee to sit between the existing board and petitioners to determine who the voting members are.

This undefined membership is the root of the problem, according to attorney Krishnan Chittur, who represents the group of temple devotees who sued for the election. The petitioners are Sambasiva Rao Venigalla, Kattinger Rao, Anand Mohan, Venkaiah Dama, Nehru Cherukupalli and Krishnamurty Aiyer, according to the court documents.

Piacentini said he would not comment on the case. Mysorekar said the last meeting he had with both sides was held on Dec. 23, and that little progress was made.

The suit stems from the petitioners' suspicions, Mysorekar said, that the board's accounting may have been faulty in financing the $6 million worth of construction at the worship center in recent years.

In 2000 and 2001, the group that would later become the six petitioners asked the state attorney general's office to investigate the board's accounting, Mysorekar said. She said the investigation found nothing suspicious. Shortly thereafter, the first lawsuit was filed requesting elections at the temple.

A spokesman from the attorney general's office could not confirm this investigation because the department's records do not date back that far.

Mysorekar, who was appointed president by the board of trustees in 1994, said the litigation has wrongly left the fate of the Hindu meeting place in the hands of the court.

The president is selected by the board every two years, and the trustees are appointed by the existing board members from nominations that are welcome from anyone, even non-temple members.

Chittur said the question of membership also spawned another lawsuit, filed by 22 other temple devotees in April after the board of trustees revised the bylaws to make only trustees and the president official "members" of the temple. That suit will be effectively mooted once elections are held at the temple, he said.

The temple's bylaws have been at the center of all the litigation. The temple's trustees assert they have adhered to and updated their bylaws, which date back to 1978.

It was not until the case made it to court that the six petitioners presented the original 1970 bylaws from the year of the temple's inception. The petitioners found the bylaws after filing a Freedom of Information Act request with the Internal Revenue Service.

In those bylaws, filed in a routine, non-profit tax exemption form with the IRS in 1970, the temple says that "all members who have attained the age of 18 years or more may be admitted (to) membership."

Under the article dictating the laws for the board of trustees, it reads, "Each year at least three posts or trustees will be available for election."

Mysorekar pointed to another part of the IRS form, where it asks whether the board is going to assign voting rights to the membership.

An "X" marks the box "No" in response to that question.

"How on Earth the appellate court upheld this is truly a mystery to me," Mysorekar said. "It seems very unfair that an institution that is running so well ... that (an attorney) should come here asking us to change the entire procedure in a religious institution."

She said the leadership positions at the temple are entirely voluntary. A gynecologist, she said she spends more than 40 hours a week in her office alongside the temple.

Her desk sits below a replica of the Lord Ganesh, the elephant-headed god and temple's main deity. She said she is able to dedicate so much of herself to her position as president because of her intense faith.

"People have to exhibit their commitment by participating in all the activities," Mysorekar said. "My popularity means nothing, but my commitment does."

She said she is still unsure of whether her name will appear on the ballot when elections are held.

As president, Mysorekar oversees the temple society's senior center activities, Saturday and Sunday schools and dance and music classes. The temple maintains a canteen that sells Indian food and also collects donations from its devotees. With those profits, the society just built a $5 million community center. A $1.8 million staff quarters is under construction.

Its revenue is at about $3.22 million, up from $1.42 million in 1994. The devotee list has also grown in that time, from 12,700 in 1995 to 19,446 in 2002.

But the physical expansion of the facilities, or at least the financing of them, is what aroused suspicion among the devotees, Mysorekar said.

Burke said he has handled religious cases in his 30-year history as an attorney, but he has never encountered the animosity that he has seen in this case.

"This is the first time I've seen a hostile corporate takeover in a religious corporation," he said.

He cannot appeal the decision until the elections are complete. Once the votes are tallied, his instructions from the temple are to continue pursuing the case.

He believes the court-mandated elections could be construed as a constitutional infringement that could be tried at the Court of Appeals in Albany or the U.S. Supreme Court.

The grounds, he said, are whether this is an excessive regulation of a church under the First Amendment.

Mysorekar said the decision continues to baffle her.

"The way we believe is God works in mysterious ways," she said. "There is a meaning in everything so maybe there is some meaning in this also."

Reach reporter Cynthia Koons by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 141.

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