Facing his neighbors in the oval-shaped heart of the massive 70,000-square foot temple, Bennett shared his faith. For Bennett, who had endured much criticism from angry townsfolk as the church's local point man for the temple, the moment was sweet.
That feeling may be shared by many local Mormons as their temple is dedicated by LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley on Sunday.
The temple marks a milestone for the church: it is the faith's 100th temple, accomplishing a goal Hinckley set three years ago. It also may signal a coming-of-age for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in New England.
But the Sardinian granite structure, where Mormons participate in sacred rituals of baptism and marriage, has also been a source of contention in the Boston bedroom community of mostly wealthy, urbane professionals and lifelong New Englanders.
Neighbors on Belmont Hill, where the temple looms above million-dollar homes, vociferously opposed the church's plans. During months of debates, each side accused the other of duplicity, of breaking promises, stirring unreasonable antagonism and being insensitive.
Mormons and some neutral observers saw religious bigotry. Opponents charged religious favoritism.
"There are nice people in the church and nice people in the neighborhood, and both sides are saying the other folks aren't nice," said John Gahen, chairman of the zoning board that approved the church's plan. "The fight took on more momentum than I am used to seeing in small communities with nice people."
But it is the kind of fight over religious buildings that is being replayed in communities across the country, in many cases pitting a less established religious group against their neighbors. A small congregation of mostly elderly Orthodox Jews in a Los Angeles neighborhood was denied a permit to gather in a home for services. The Islamic Society of Frederick, Md., was not allowed access to city water and sewer lines for its proposed mosque.
"Small faiths are forced to litigate far more often," Douglas Laycock, professor of law at the University of Texas told The Christian Science Monitor. "The land use authorities are less sympathetic to their needs and react less favorably to their claims."
These sorts of squabbles provided the impetus for the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, introduced in Congress by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and signed into law by President Clinton last week. While not exempting religious groups from all zoning regulations, it does force cities and towns to show a "compelling reason" for restricting the free exercise of religion.
But for some Belmont residents, all this animosity is unseemly. In a town of 20,000 that features about 20 churches, one Jewish synagogue and a Bah'ai community, they take Yankee pride in being open and respectful of other people's religions.
"I grew up in New England and I have a hard time not liking someone because of their religion," said Melissa Pyle, who was reading a novel at Starbucks in the Belmont Center on Friday. "A church is a church. We are tolerant of all churches here."
Julia Welch, munching on Thai food in a restaurant across the street, said, "Belmont is a peaceful community. [The temple's opponents] are embarrassing us." Another resident, Zyg Furmaniuk, summed it up this way: "This is the United States. I don't care what other people believe, even if they worship the god Zorkan. That's their right."
This Is the Right Place:
In the spring of 1995, Belmont seemed the perfect location for the church's first temple in New England. Bennett took then newly ordained LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley on a tour of the Mormon chapel, rebuilt after an arson fire, and the surrounding 9-acre property owned by the church.
Six months later, at the church's October conference in Salt Lake City, Hinckley announced plans for a temple on the property, bringing the faith, in a sense, back to its roots.
After the main body of Mormons moved west, few members remained. It was not until the 1950s that the church began to grow here. In 1956, the first Mormon chapel was built in Cambridge on property purchased from the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's estate. The first stake, a geographic designation that encompasses several congregations, was established in 1962.
At the time, there were more Roman Catholics in the diocese of Massachusetts than Mormons in the world, recalled Elder Loren Dunn, the Belmont temple president recently.
The church has nearly 60,000 members in New England--16,000 in Massachusetts alone--and is pushing 11 million members worldwide.
But five years ago, when Hinckley announced plans for the temple, it was left to local members, especially Bennett, who was bishop of the Belmont Ward at the time, to shepherd the building through the zoning approval process.
Neither he nor any of the 400 Mormons in Belmont anticipated the torrent of opposition the process would unleash.
"The hearings kind of exploded," Bennett recalled this week.
The initial plans presented to Belmont's Zoning Board of Appeals called for a 94,000 square foot temple, adorned with six spires. The church needed a special permit to exceed the town's height limitations with its 159-foot center spire.
Neighbors complained about potential traffic on residential streets, light pollution from the temple's nightly illumination, and shadows cast by the massive building, among other things. The meetings grew heated as the church was forced to describe its theology, defend the religious nature of spires, and attempt to mollify the needs of residents whose homes abut the property.
In December 1996, the Zoning Board granted the building permit.
Within days, however, Hinckley wrote Bennett and said the church was scaling back the temple to 70,000-square feet and a single steeple that would rise just 139 feet from the ground. The revamped plans once again were approved, this time by a unanimous vote of the board's five members. Many neighbors were pleased by the changes, but a few felt they still did not go far enough.
Soon after, two groups filed lawsuits against the Mormon church, the Zoning Board and the town of Belmont.
One lawsuit sought to overturn the special permit granted for the steeple. Earlier this year, a state judge ruled in the plaintiffs' favor, which means that the temple will be dedicated without its steeple. The church is appealing the decision.
The other challenges a 48-year-old Massachusetts statute known as the Dover Amendment, which allows religious and educational groups the right to build wherever they choose. The plaintiffs are asking that the amendment be struck down and the temple be removed. Two federal courts have ruled against the plaintiffs but they vow to take it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Despite the continuing legal opposition, the church began blasting through the site's rock foundation in July 1997. The noise was deafening, the dust everywhere. Soon two opponents of the project, John Forster, an attorney who owns property in Belmont, and Charles Counselman, a retired MIT professor, began daily patrols of the construction site, measuring sound levels and taking pictures of the work underway.
Week after week, the two showed up at the Belmont Selectmen's meetings to complain. Soon Bennett and other Mormons were also attending. The hearings were covered on the town's cable access television station. They were reported in the Belmont Citizen-Herald, which also carried missives fired off from both sides on its editorial pages.
In the midst of the conflict, the Rev. Victor Carpenter of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Belmont gave a sermon called "Mormons Among Us," in which he outlined basic LDS beliefs. He had his choir sing the Mormon hymn, "Come, Come Ye Saints," and invited Bennett to answer questions.
"Sometimes opposition comes out of ignorance because ignorance breeds fear. What is unknown makes people nervous," Carpenter said this week.
For its part, LDS representatives went door-to-door in the neighborhood most directly affected, offering to wash windows, clean carpets and plant trees or build walls to block views of the temple.
"The church has labored hard and expended large amounts of money to try and be neighborly," Gahen said.
It was too little, too late, said Forster.
"They said they would abide by the town's noise bylaw. Instead they violated that hundreds of times," he said. "They never fixed the cracks in people's homes as a result of the blasting. They broke every promise they made."
The temple project made life miserable for people living in nearby homes, Forster said. "There will not be harmony in the town until the temple is flattened," he said.
Julie Altschuler, a strong early opponent and property owner in the area, puts the blame on Belmont officials rather than the church.
"It seemed to me that the town was taking the side of the church," Altschuler said.
Opponent Vilma DiBiase also faults the Zoning Board for giving the church a permit.
Aggressive proselytizing is an article of faith to Mormons, she said. Putting the temple in such a prominent place is little more than an advertisement for that faith and should not be given government approval.
"We are supporting it by providing town services, and that's unconstitutional," DiBiase said.