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Justice Dept. settles religious discrimination lawsuit with the city of Walnut

8/3/2011, 5 p.m.

LOS ANGELES, Calif.--The federal government has preliminarily resolved its religious discrimination case against the city of Walnut over handling of a proposed Zen Center.

The U.S. Department of Justice sued the municipality last September, accusing Walnut of violating the civil rights of the Buddhist group Chung Tai in 2008 by denying its request to build the only non-Christian religious center in the city.

The lawsuit alleged that, until it denied the Zen Center's application, the city had not rejected any application for a conditional use permit to build, expand or operate a house of worship in the area since at least 1980.

The complaint further alleged that the San Gabriel Valley city treated the Zen Center differently than similarly situated religious and non-religious facilities.

For example, in August 2008, the city approved a conditional use permit for a Catholic church that, when completed, will be larger than the Zen Center's proposed facility, according to the Justice Department.

A Walnut city representative did not immediately return a call seeking comment on the settlement, which must be approved by a federal judge before it takes effect.

As part of the settlement, the city has agreed not to impose differential zoning or building requirements on other houses of worship, according to the Justice Department.

The city also agreed that its leaders and managers, and certain city employees, will attend training on the requirements of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000--the federal law Walnut was accused of violating.

In addition, Walnut will adopt new procedures that clarify its appeals process for houses of worship, and will report periodically to the Justice Department, it was announced.

"Religious freedom is among our most cherished rights, and our nation's laws prohibit cities and towns from discriminating based on religion when they make zoning decisions related to houses of worship," said Thomas Perez, Assistant Attorney General of the department's civil rights division.

"We are pleased that we have reached an agreement with the city of Walnut that prohibits inferior treatment of any religious organization that seeks to build a house of worship in compliance with local zoning laws," he said.

After Chung Tai was denied a permit to build its house of worship, the Zen Center opened in Pomona, according to the lawsuit.