orders records reviewed in Livingston Sikh temple dispute
- The highest expenditures: $6,000 to $9,000 have been filed
in the miscellaneous category, which could arouse suspicions
- Complete victory for Livingston resident Mohani Thiara
and about 50 other Sikhs who demanded financial statements
from board of directors
LIVINGSTON, March 10, 2008
The Modesto Bee
Sikh Temple leaders must let congregation members review
nearly a decade's worth of church financial records, a judge
The decision is a nearly complete victory for Livingston
resident Mohani Thiara and about 50 other Sikhs who sued the
Peach Street temple in December so they could double-check
how church money has been spent.
The lawsuit is the latest in a series of spats between the
temple's leadership and some of the congregation. The schism
centers on the direction of the church.
Last year, some of the same Sikhs challenged the board's
plan to build a multimillion-dollar community center next
to the temple that would allow dancing, meat and alcohol --
all of which aren't allowed on religious land. The project
hasn't moved forward, though a vacant spot for it remains
behind the temple.
In the lawsuit, Thiara and other Sikhs demanded financial
statements, board of directors' meeting minutes and membership
lists, the last of which collides with constitutional protections.
Merced County Superior Court Judge Ronald Hansen ruled Friday
the membership lists requested will remain confidential because
of the constitutional right to freely associate. Releasing
them could infringe on that, as well as the right to privacy,
Also, the court would have to decide who's a member, which
mixes church and state matters.
"It would be inappropriate," Hansen noted. "This
court cannot go there."
However, the financial records beginning in 2000 and meeting
minutes from the temple's founding in 1981 can be released
with certain provisions, he said, noting the importance of
transparency these days.
The temple must give the records to Mark Cohen, the congregation's
Fremont-based attorney, who will let his clients review them
-- but not make copies.
Any auditor must follow the privacy guidelines as well or
be held in contempt of court, Hansen said. "We will be
bending over backwards to be discreet," he said after
Also, any discussions at meetings that deal with religious
issues, such as marriages and other ceremonies, must be blacked
out for privacy.
Temple attorney Jakrun Sodhi, based in Modesto, argued in
court that the incomplete bylaws filed with the State Franchise
Board nearly 30 years ago were never adopted and that the
church has no members, only a following of Sikhs.
The temple's board has its own set of rules that have remained
confidential, and they keep all records behind closed doors.
However, Sodhi will share the bylaws with the opposing attorney
as part of the judge's ruling.
Temple leaders have 45 days to hand over the volumes of documents
once both attorneys sign off on a court filing outlining the
Church leaders have nothing to hide, Sodhi said, adding that
any review of their records will prove that. "Nothing
has been done inappropriately," he said.
Though the Sikh leaders withheld the financial details, Sodhi
noted that the nonprofit's tax returns can easily be found
online, and a monthly report is posted at the temple.
The highest expenditures -- $6,000 to $9,000 -- have been
filed in the miscellaneous category, which could arouse suspicions.
Sodhi admitted that there could be better reporting for some
expenses, though none of the temple executives are paid for
their time and effort.
He speculated that Thiara and her group would try to use
any findings from the bylaws and financial records to cause
Rather, Cohen said, if any errors or problems are found,
the congregation would like to meet with leaders and discuss
ways to improve.
"This is good for the temple," he said. "It
shouldn't be one side versus another."