There is some ongoing turmoil about the planned temple near Paris. At the present (pretty secure) stage of development, it seems much ado about nothing, but it makes headlines.
The location is the small city of Le Chesnay, near Versailles. On the lot of 2.24 acres stands an old building, waiting for demolition. The building permit for the temple was delivered last October, after a thorough investigation. The city mayor, Dr. Philippe Brillault, had no reason and no legal ground to deny the application. His majority in the city council agreed and approved the project.
But, such a dossier is fair political game: a hard kernel within the opposition decided to make it their battering-ram.
In the ongoing procedure, people could still contest the approval by December 27th 2011. Four formal objections were lodged against the building permit. The municipality rejected all four this week. Opponents can now appeal to an administrative court. As long as appeals are possible, the Church has decided to leave the lot untouched. But matters look favorable for the Church, which also set up a website about the temple.
Which main arguments are being used against the plan?
One is simply procedural. Has the mayor showed enough openness and provided enough information during the whole procedure? The mayor says yes, the opposition no. Standard bickering with broad margins for interpretation.
Another argument is socio-economic. Chesnay needs no Mormon temple! Why not, for example, have the city purchase the lot, through expropriation, and build “social housing,” apartments rented at moderate prices, which the city badly needs? “Instead of building a national temple for a population that baptizes the dead, should we not first give proper equipment, work and lodgings to the living?” asks the anti-Mormon-temple website Avenir46—the name referring to the future of the location at number 46 boulevard Saint-Antoine. The answer of the mayor is as socio-economic: the purchase price of 20 million euros (26 million dollars), just for the lot, would have put an enormous strain on a town with a total year budget of 11,5 million euros. It would have prevented the planned building of a new school, the renovation of equipment, and all public works for at least three years. And no money left to demolish the old building (expensive because of asbestos clearing) and to construct social housing. Not one city council member, the mayor clarified in a well-argued editorial to the citizens, would vote in favor of such financial suicide.
Other arguments—and these make national and even international headlines—are emotional: For or against the Mormons? Some in the hard kernel of the opposition, using latent French chauvinism and xenophobia, are painting, in horrendous terms, the coming invasion of those dreaded Mormons to the quiet and lovely city of Le Chesnay. By January 31, Avenir46 had gathered 6,000 signatures to protest the planned Mormon temple. The site links to information railing against Mormonism, exposing the evils of this ‘blasphemous, polytheistic’ religion which degrades women, brainwashes children, and isolates its members from society—not to speak of the pagan rites for dead people at just a few yards from where you walk! Welcome to the 1880s. These contemporary anti-Mormons find support from various French anticult organizations, who are always eager to save victims from cultish destruction. But it should also be said that many French, in comments in newspapers and websites, are voicing their embarrassment at the bigotry of some of their fellow citizens.
Some anticult opponents also voice two concerns grounded in reality: tithing and non-admission for non-members. These are worthy of consideration as they are sometimes real obstacles in issues of cult-identification, recognition, and tax exemption for the Church.
In France (as in other countries) the government or an official watchdog defines a harmful cult according to a number of criteria. One criterion is extortion: requiring a significant amount of money to allow access to ‘vital’ religious material, sacraments or ordinances. On the basis of that criterion, Scientology has been a main target for judicial action in a number of European countries, also in France. Though the Mormon Church is not officially listed as a cult in France, the same critique of extortion is sometimes leveled at the Church. Since for Mormons the temple ordinances are a required step for exaltation and since a temple sealing is necessary for a religiously sanctioned marriage, a temple recommend is needed. To obtain one, one must be a full tithe payer. In a country like France, with high taxes and a high cost of living, tithing represents a significant amount of money. It is easy for outsiders to define as extortion this combination of the highest religious exigency and the obligation to pay for it. Some accuse the Church of building temples with the concealed purpose of raising more tithing. It seems that one way to defuse this criticism would be to leave out the tithing question from the recommend interview or to alter it to a willingness to pay tithing.
Once dedicated, a temple is accessible only to Mormons in good standing. The exclusion of non-members, even for a visit outside religious service hours, is not only difficult to understand for outsiders, but reinforces the image of a secret and therefore perfidious society. The exclusion has been, and still is, a major stumbling block in procedures of recognition and of tax exemption. In the United Kingdom, the claim to tax exemption for the temple was denied because the building does not qualify as a place of “public worship.” The appeal went all the way to the House of Lords in 2007 where it was treated in the context of race and religious discrimination laws. The Church lost. I do not know if Church leaders have ever seriously considered revising the policy of accessibility. One could imagine a temple being opened to visitors on Sunday for explanations on the function of temples, for listening to inspirational music and content, such as Music and the Spoken Word, or for meditation. Such a policy would make it a magnificent church building open on the Sabbath, tax exempt, and, in France, a serene space to welcome and appease the worried citizens of Le Chesnay.
Of course, I foster no illusion about the suggestions made.