BELMONT, Mass., Sept. 29 (AP)--In the Mormon church's new Boston temple, one room is illuminated by 12 sparkling chandeliers and three-story-high stained-glass windows. In another, a Jacuzzi-size baptismal pool rests on the backs of 12 life-size sculptures of oxen.

The exterior is Italian marble and granite. The interior is filled with luxurious sofas and chairs.

But the beauty and opulence of the $30 million temple, to be consecrated Sunday, masks an ugly battle between church leaders and the town's residents regarding the temple's size. The 69,000-square-foot structure stands on a hilltop surrounded by private homes.

Temples, where Mormons perform sacred ordinances like eternal marriage and baptism of the dead, differ from the more common meeting halls where regular services are held. They are typically soaring, dramatic structures in large cities such as Los Angeles or Dallas. Belmont has a population of about 26,000.

The temple has particular significance to the Mormons because it is the 100th built. Mormon church President Gordon B. Hinckley said in 1997 that his goal was to have 100 worldwide.

But three residents of the surrounding neighborhood filed a lawsuit against the Mormons, asking that the church be taken down.

"It's like having a Wal-Mart built in your neighborhood," said Charles Counselman, one of the three. "I wish it had never been built."

The lawsuit claims the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints took advantage of a law that applies lower zoning restrictions to religious groups. So far, the suit has been denied by two federal judges.

The neighbors' lawyer, Michael Peirce, asked the U.S. Supreme Court this month to take up the matter again. "The neighborhood I live in is zoned for single-family, detached residences," Counselman said. "This church is enormous and out of scale with the neighborhood."

Church leaders say that while the structure is large, the size of the crowd attending the temple at any one time isn't.

But Peirce thinks differently.

"You don't build a 200-car parking lot and a building that large if you don't expect to get a lot of people there," he said.

Peirce said he knows of no case in which a fully constructed religious building was taken down as a result of a lawsuit. But he hasn't given up hope.

"I don't presume to know what a court would do in the remedy phase of a hearing," he said.

The Mormon church had planned to build a temple 50% larger than the one that now stands in Belmont. It was to have six enormous spires. But the plans, though approved by the town's zoning board, caused an uproar.

Faced with strong opposition, temple officials scaled down the design and put much of the structure underground. But after changing several major details, they had "run out of compromises," as church member Kent Bowen put it.

The church never considered backing off the Belmont location entirely, in spite of the lawsuit that was first filed in May 1997, a month before the groundbreaking.

"We wanted to be as accommodating to the neighbors as we could. We wanted to do the fair thing," said Loren C. Dunn, president of the Boston temple. "But once the site was designated, we felt it was going to be there."

A separate lawsuit prevented construction of the temple's proposed 13-story steeple, even though it, too, was approved by the town's zoning board.

Only church members with a temple "recommend"--sort of a Mormon membership card--will be allowed inside the temple once it is consecrated. Recommends can only be obtained by those who follow church tenets and contribute 10% of their income to the organization.

Those donations allowed the Boston temple to be completely paid for in advance. The temple includes four "sealing rooms," where marriages can take place; four "endowment rooms," in which Mormons learn to follow the ways of their church; the enormous "celestial room," which, with its white and beige furnishings, is supposed to represent heaven; a cafeteria; administrative offices; and changing rooms, where those who enter must change into all-white dresses or shirts, pants, and ties.

Belmont Selectman Bill Monahan sought to distinguish between locals' opposition to the temple and anti-Mormon feelings.

"I think the ugly head of bigotry has shown its face, but I think that's a small minority of people," Monahan said.

Once the structure was finished, the Mormons invited neighbors to visit. Though many praised the beauty of the building, others still weren't happy.

"There's a great deal of frustration on both sides, by those who didn't want anything built there, and those who didn't want anything grandiose there, and those who wonder why it has taken so long to do something so important to them," Monahan said.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus