Converting Phoenix’s Chinese Cultural Center into a corporate complex would amount to desecrating a house of worship, according to Chinese-Americans who are alleging religious discrimination by the center’s new owners.
A group of 10 on Tuesday unsuccessfully asked a federal-court judge to prohibit changes to the center’s religious elements, saying their removal would demonstrate “an unthinkable level of disrespect.”
They also asked to regain access to the center’s prayer garden, claiming that by being turned away they’d experienced “blatant” prejudice.
The Chinese community for months has challenged True North Cos.’ plans to modernize the center, after the firm purchased the property through subsidiary 668 North in June. Offers to save and relocate cultural and religious elements have failed to appease protesters, and tensions escalated when fencing appeared around the center on Sept. 13.
“The pain that my clients, that Chinese-Americans, feel toward (being locked out) is very, very real,” attorney Jonathan Frutkin said.
Different standards for different religions?
Frutkin contended his clients would be treated differently if they were members of more prominent religions, such as Christianity or Judaism.
“We wouldn’t say to church-goers, ‘Hey, we’re just going to rip out the stained-glass windows and the pews, and we’ll just move the cross over there,’ ” he said.
Attorney Cameron Artigue argued that erecting a safety barrier is well within a private-property owner’s rights, and because the fence bars access to everyone, no discrimination exists.
“That fence … keeps out white people. It keeps out black people, Muslims, Jews,” Artigue said. “It’s a fence.”
After Judge Diane Humetewa denied the worshippers’ requests, True North spokesman Jason Rose issued a statement saying 668 North was pleased the court “upheld private property rights and allowed the revitalization of the site of the former Chinese Cultural Center to move forward.”
A separate order issued in Maricopa County Superior Court protects the center’s traditional glazed-tile roofing and garden statues from demolition until Nov. 3.
Grounds full of religious elements
The Chinese-Americans who use the center and garden for religious purposes primarily practice Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism.
Taoism promotes harmony with nature, spiritual immortality and balance. Buddhism focuses on developing inner peace, kindness and wisdom. Confucianism emphasizes relationship hierarchies, rituals and connections with ancestors.
Worshipers of all three religions said the prayer garden — which True North is considering reopening to the public following renovations — has provided them space to meditate, reflect and make religious offerings over the past two decades. Though religious elements are located throughout the property, the garden and its pond are particularly rich with symbolism, they said.
The pond’s koi fish, for instance, represent strength, ambition, perseverance and good fortune. A statue of the Guan Yin Buddha signifies compassion and mercy, and the lotus flowers surrounding the statue symbolize purity.
Elsewhere, builders mounted dragon, tiger, phoenix and turtle statues intended to protect and guard the property. The center also features a replica of the Confucius Temple of Nanjing, a Chinese holy site, and an “ancestors wall.”
‘Rooted in my blood’
Religion marked the center’s construction from start to finish, according to officials involved in its design.
A feng shui master provided blessings for peace and harmony. Craftsmen could not eat meat, followed a strict bathing schedule, and prayed each day they worked on the site.
For years, the Chinese community celebrated Chinese New Year at the center, as well as the Duanwu, or Dragon Boat, Festival. Worshippers hoped property owners would open the fence in time for Wednesday’s Harvest Moon Festival, which resembles Thanksgiving in its themes.
Last month, about 20 members of the Chinese community tied yellow ribbons to the construction fence to honor Confucius’ birthday.
In addition to holidays, Chinese-Americans have used the center for weddings and engagements, they said.
“The Chinese Cultural Center is full of the elements of the religious beliefs that have been deeply rooted in my blood since I was born,” said Jinhui Chen, who began visiting the center after moving to Arizona in 2010.
“I fight for the religious rights, not only for my religious believing, but also for all the community members who hold the same beliefs,” he said.