ISKCON Brooklyn temple saga

GBC Obtains Temporary Restraining Order Against Banning of Congregants by Brooklyn Temple Board

By: GBC Attorney Guru Gauranga Das (ACBSP) for ISKCON News - 9.2 2018

On January 19, 2018, an emergency hearing was held in New York Supreme Court for Kings County on an application for a temporary restraining order (“TRO”) enjoining the Bharati Center Board led by Ramabhadra Das (the "Ramabhadra Board") “from interfering with any congregant’s attendance at worship, service and other religious functions in the ISKCON Bharati Center house of worship in Brooklyn, NY.” 

The application was submitted jointly by ISKCON’s Governing Body Commission (“GBC”) and the newly reconstituted Bharati Center Board approved by the GBC at its mid-term Meeting in Ujjain, India on October 9, 2017 (the “New Bharati Board”).

The hearing is the latest result in a long series of events. It began with Ramabhadra Das, longtime president of the ISKCON Brooklyn temple, disregarding the GBC’s decision not to sell the temple and moving ahead with independent plans to sell. The GBC then announced the removal of Ramabhadra from his position as the temple president and assigned its own temple board.

On Sunday July 23rd, 2017 GBC Chairman Bhakti Charu Swami visited the temple to advise the congregation of Ramabhadra’s removal. After trying but failing to silence Bhakti Charu Swami, Ramabhadra called the police, cut the sound system, shut off the temple room lights, and announced that all the devotees had to leave the temple or else they would be trespassing. 

Since then, he and his board have refused to physically hand over management to the GBC, and have kept security guards posted at the front door of the temple to turn away any congregants that disagree with his proposed sale.

A legal battle has been ongoing, which brings us to the recent January 19, 2018 emergency hearing.

At the beginning of the hearing, Kings County Supreme Court Judge Dawn Jiménez-Salta immediately remarked that the same parties would be appearing before her in about two weeks on the subject of the Ramabhadra Board’s petition for approval of the sale of the ISKCON Bharati Center temple. 

The judge noted that the New York State Office of the Attorney General has already rejected the sale petition on three separate occasions and announced straight up, “I will not be approving the temple sale at the January 31st hearing.” Judge Jiménez-Salta also indicated that she would be taking up the broader question of who ultimately controls Bharati Center.

The judge then turned to the application for the Temporary Restraining Order (TRO). Reena Rani, Esq. and Mark J. Weinstein, Esq., attorneys for the Ramabhadra Board, began to explain agitatedly that representatives from ISKCON and/or the GBC had “stormed” the temple’s Sunday feast program on July 23, 2017, disrupting religious services and causing a great commotion. The judge did not seem particularly concerned by this claim, stressing that this was only one incident, that even if true would not be sufficient justification to ban religious congregants from a house of worship, and that the bans in place did not seem “narrowly tailored” to the individuals who had caused the alleged commotion. The judge further indicated she was troubled by the fact that religious congregants were being barred from entering Bharati Center for worship, admonishing that “no one is going to be prevented from worshiping at Bharati Center, and everyone is going to behave.”

At that point, Ms. Rani told the judge that her clients might be willing to consider allowing certain individuals into the temple. Adopting a sharp tone with Ms. Rani, the judge retorted, “You will not allow anything. I am ordering it.”  

Judge Jiménez-Salta explained that she has “ultimate authority” now. Referring to the looming dispute as to the rightful board, the judge went on to say that authority for Bharati Center no longer rested in the hands of the Ramabhadra Board because “we don’t know whose church it is.” 

The judge said that the Krishna temple in Brooklyn will be “like Switzerland” for now, that is to say, anyone may enter and worship, and everyone will behave and treat one another with respect. The judge admitted that she did not yet know much about the religious tenets of Hare Krishna but that sharing and respect are important tenets of the Catholic faith to which she belongs. The judge continued to say that she could enter any Catholic church in the world and nobody would prevent her from entering.  

“People have rights,” the judge continued, “and cannot simply be thrown out of a church, synagogue or temple unless they are disruptive.” “As of now,” the judge declared, “there is no reason to exclude anyone and I expect everyone to behave.”

Ms. Rani then tried to argue that those who oppose the temple sale have ulterior motives, in other words, they are against the Ramabhadra Board and seek to disrupt rather than to worship. The judge merely repeated that Bharati Center is a house of worship, and no one should come there for any purpose other than to worship.

The judge then brought up the subject of the pending temple sale and asked what had changed to make it so undesirable to the GBC after the GBC had already approved the sale on two separate occasions. Mr. Samuels explained that the previous approvals were general in nature and obsolescent by 2015, as they were granted back in 1998 and 2008, respectively. Furthermore, the GBC was never allowed to review the sale contract prior to its execution by Mr. Britten because so-called “New York confidentiality laws prevented its disclosure,” according to Brian Rumbaugh a/k/a Romapada Swami, Chairman of the Britten Board. Mr. Samuels told the judge that there were other reasons for the GBC’s opposition to the sale transaction and that his co-counsel George J. Frumkin, Esq. (Guru Gauranga Das) would address them in greater detail, along with certain issues of religious doctrine, at the January 31st hearing, if the judge so desired. 

Ms. Rani argued that the dispute was "all about money." She said that previous proposed sales were for much smaller amounts, and now that the sale was for a larger amount, the GBC had “suddenly become interested.”  Arguing on behalf of the New Bharati Board approved by the GBC in Ujjain, India on October 9, 2017, Edward Rudofsky, Esq. rejected Mr. Weinstein’s argument by explaining that every church needs money but that is not the issue in dispute. The GBC was not attempting to “take over” Bharati Center since Bharati Center had never stopped being an ISKCON temple subject to the authority of the GBC. 

Judge Jiménez-Salta replied that she was familiar with this type of case. In particular, she noted that there is typically some governing, adjudicatory body in any church or religion, and that it is very rare that an individual church or temple is answerable only to itself. The judge said she could not think of any comparable instances. 

The judge was then urged to review the recent court decision in Kelley, ISKCON, GBC v. Garuda, 2017 N.Y. Slip Op. 51393(U), Nassau County Supreme Court. regarding the ISKCON temple in Freeport, Long Island (“Marber Decision”), which clearly sets out in its findings of fact that the Hare Krishna church is hierarchal, with the GBC as its head. The judge indicated that she would certainly study the Marber Decision before the January 31st hearing.

The judge then granted the Temporary Restraining Order, pictured below.