Although I grew up in the Washington D.C. suburbs when the Temple was being built, I don’t remember the controversy and protests to its construction, since I was just a deacon when it was dedicated. I’ve been told that there were objections from the neighbors — one of the early examples of what has become a very normal part of constructing a Temple both in and outside of the U.S.
In subsequent years protests have become more visible and more complicated, despite even Federal legislation (sponsored by LDS legislators) meant to quell most of the objections. Those against Temple construction have a litany of problems they assume will plague neighbors as a result of an LDS Temple: traffic congestion, outdoor lighting, aesthetics, property values, views from their homes, among others.
Not surprisingly, we as Church members are often defensive about this issue. Very few Church members wouldn’t want a Temple in their neighborhood and, at least in Utah, property values often rise with the construction of a Temple in a neighborhood, instead of decrease as neighbors elsewhere expect.
While our experience with opposition in building LDS Temples has, from what I’ve seen, generally meant that LDS Church members are more tolerant of construction by other Churches, I’m not sure that Mormons are any more tolerant when it come to non-religious constuction.
In New York City, where I live, we’ve seen a litany of these issues in recent years, some of which are as defensible as Mormon Temples. Developers backed by the city have tried to expand the Javitz convention center and build a football stadium on Manhattan’s west side, only to have neighbors block the proposal. A proposed basketball arena and residential development in Brooklyn is proceeding despite neighborhood opposition. And Columbia University is expanding northward into an area of Harlem that the city has ruled “blighted” despite opposition (I should note that some of these issues involve the slightly different issue of the use of eminent domain). I suspect this isn’t very different from other large cities.
All of these involve an issue I struggle with in trying to be a responsible voter and citizen: when does a neighbor have the right to control and influence how another uses property.
To me the extremes of this issue aren’t so hard to reconcile. Dust from a quarry shouldn’t blow onto neighboring residences, as long as the residences were built before the quarry. Nor should the noise and smell from a power plant or sewage treatment plant be enough to bother previously existing neighbors. I can even agree that the light from a Temple shouldn’t flood the bedrooms of neighbors with noon-day brilliance.
These seem obvious in many ways, but also somewhat nonsensical — everyone wants a sewage treatment plant, but no one is willing for it to be built in their backyard. And the current system simply pushes such projects to the “backyards” of those least able to fight against it (hardly a fair or Christian way of resolving problems).
Other complaints from neighbors make no sense to me. Complaints about loss of property value and aesthetics in particular are annoying. The first because its often a mask for what the property owner doesn’t like and a desire to avoid the normal risks associated with owning property (property looses or gains value based on many factors, most of which are outside of the property owner’s control). The second because aesthetic norms are transitory and personal, and because they enforce a majority view at the expense of the minority (if Picasso had been a house painter, he wouldn’t be able to paint houses in most of the HOAs in the southwestern U.S.).
It is likely true that anti-Mormons have also used the zoning system to oppose LDS Temples. But I’m not persuaded that the majority of complaints come from anti-Mormons. More likely the complaints simply come from fears and from a zoning system that, I suspect, has run amuck.
Now, as I’ve pondered the role of zoning and related property issues for a decade trying to figure out my own views, I’m presented with yet another situation: a Muslim group’s attempt to build a mosque near ground zero. From the news reports I’ve read it seems like none of the objections we’ve experienced at LDS Temples are being raised here. No one claims it will cause too much traffic, or lead to reduced property values or that the yet-to-be-released design will be aesthetically bad or out-of-place. No, the objections are entirely about sentiment and proximity–it is claimed that it is offensive to have the mosque so close to ground zero. Those behind the project are being “insensitive.”
Opponents of the mosque are ready to go on and on about how this move is insensitive and wrong, but no one that I’ve see has been able to explain why that insensitivity means that the mosque should be prevented, or why this means that the property owners should be dissuaded.
Like is common in politics, the issue has turned many into hypocrites. We, Americans are proud of our freedom of religion and tolerance for other views, but we’ll try to browbeat those of another faith because we think they are being “insensitive?” We’re happy to let political talk shows (on the left and right) say things that are very insensitive (so much so that Bonneville kicked several off of its stations), but we don’t want Muslims to build a mosque because that would be “insensitive.” I don’t know about you, but I see a large qualitative difference between the insensitivity I’ve heard on some talk shows and the insensitivity of building a religious edifice.
As LDS Church members, I think we need to think very carefully about what our positions are in this case. If a mosque can be stopped merely for being “insensitive,” then I believe the Temples we may want to build in the future are also at risk, for the reasons to block buildings are flimsy indeed. And if constructing the Cordoba Center mosque is really insensitive, then we Mormons are among the most insensitive, for the Church both owns the land and constructed the memorial at Mountain Meadows.
[I had already been thinking about this post when I discovered that Max at Juvenile Instructor has posted in a similar vein. I believe this is a bit different from his post, but to the extent it isn’t, I hope he will excuse me for covering similar ground.]