LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A judge did not violate the U.S. Constitution by deciding which members of a Fort Smith Buddhist temple could vote in a 2006 election over the group's leadership, the state’s highest court ruled yesterday.
The Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the vote for the board of directors of the Wat Buddha Samakitham and rejected the argument of the temple's former abbot and members who said a judge overstepped his bounds in the election.
Circuit Judge James Marschewski had ruled in a dispute within the group that the temple's 1989 bylaws were valid and he ordered the election to pick a new seven-member board. In that process, special master Brad Jesson determined who would be candidates and developed a voter roll with 1,200 temple members.
In a unanimous decision, the justices rejected the argument of former Abbot Phra Sangob Parisanto and 11 others who said Marschewski may have disenfranchised as many as 400 members.
"It is apparent to this court that in determining that an election was required under the 1989 bylaws and in supervising that election when the temple members proved incapable of conducting it on their own, the circuit court and its special master did not delve into matters that were essentially religious in nature, but rather applied neutral principles of law concerning election procedures," Justice Robert L. Brown wrote in Viravonga v. Buddha Samakitham.
After the 2006 election, Parisanto and nine other monks were fired from the temple. Forty-one members of the temple also were ejected. The temple's directors said clarification was needed on who could vote in the election because the bylaws did not spell it out.
The dispute stemmed from a lawsuit filed by some temple members in 2005 against the abbot and several other temple members. The suit accused the defendants of trying to wrest control of the temple from the elected board in violation of the temple's 1989 bylaws.
Parisanto and 11 others filed a countersuit, claiming the plaintiffs in the original suit were violating 1992 bylaws that superseded the 1989 bylaws.
The Sebastian County Election Commission agreed in 2006 to rent two voting machines for use in the temple's election.