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The Utah Court of Appeals has weighed in on a longstanding dispute between factions within Utah's Vietnamese Buddhists over control of the Pho Quang Pagoda, a temple in Salt Lake City's Rose Park neighborhood.
But divisions remain in the community and members of the losing side will be looking for a site where they can establish a new temple, according to their lawyer, S. Grace Acosta.
The appeals court on Thursday upheld a decision by a 3rd District judge saying a local affiliate of the California-based Vietnamese-American Unified Buddhist Congress has ownership of the temple at 1185 W. 1000 North, giving it control of finances and daily operations.
The ruling turned aside claims that the property was instead being held in trust on behalf of another group called the Vietnamese Unified Buddhist Association of Utah, which originally established Pho Quang as a temple and community center.
The court's decision was a blow to three of Pho Quang Pagoda's founders Hoa Vo, Chuc Phan and Thuan Tran and their supporters.
"They are heartbroken," Acosta said of her clients. "They believe (the ruling) is a miscarriage of justice."
Members of the Vietnamese Buddhist Alliance Society of Utah originally bought the former county library and land in Rose Park with donations raised by up to 100 members of Salt Lake City's Vietnamese community. Devotees gradually outfitted the aging building with a worship hall, cloisters, meeting rooms and a shrine for ancestral ashes.
In 2000 in an attempt to quell disputes arising within the Salt Lake City congregation temple founders transfered control of the property to religious leaders at the Vietnamese-American Unified Buddhist Congress. However, according to court documents, there was no written agreement between the society and the congress that the pagoda was to be held in trust.
The society's corporate status expired in June 2001 and was not renewed. Several years later, several members signed articles of incorporation for a group called the Vietnamese University Buddhist Association of Utah.
In 2009, the congress appointed a Buddhist monk named Thich Tri Lang, president of Dao Trang Phap Hoa, a religious organization affiliated with the congress, to manage the pagoda. In February 2011, the congress transferred ownership of the pagoda to Dao Tran Phap Hoa.
In May 2011, Dao Tran Phap Hoa filed a complaint in 3rd District Court seeking to evict members of the local association from the temple. The association countersued, alleging the pagoda was being held in trust on its behalf.
Dao Tran Phap Hoa also argued that the society and the association are "legally distinct organizations."
Both sides eventually filed motions asking Judge Kate Toomey to rule in their favor.
In a September 2013 decision, Toomey said "the undisputed facts demonstrate that Dao Trang is the title owner of the pagoda" and that there is no documentary evidence of a trust.
"Indeed," the judge wrote in her decision, "much of the evidence cited by (the association) supports a contrary conclusion: that the Congress owned the pagoda without limitation, and accepted it to help resolve a deepening rift in the local Vietnamese Buddhist community."
And in rejecting the association's counterclaim, Toomey also said the association and the society are separate entities. Even if the congress had owed something to the society, the association would have no standing to make a claim, she said.
The association appealed, and in its 3-0 ruling, the Utah Court of Appeals upheld Toomey's decision.
The appeals court agreed there is no legal basis for the association "to claim that it possesses and can enforce any right the society enjoys."
The two factions had been jointly using the temple but after Toomey's ruling, the members on the losing side began worshiping in each others' homes, according to Acosta.
David Mortensen, an attorney for the Vietnamese-American Unified Buddhist Congress and Dao Trang Phap Hoa, said his clients are grateful for the decision affirming their ownership of the Pho Quang Pagoda.
"They hope this will help resolve the rift in the Vietnamese Buddhist community," Mortensen said, "and, while the Association and its members long ago began worshiping at another temple, the Congress invites them and all like-minded individuals to worship at the Pho Quang Pagoda."