An Indian American professor living at the luxury Murano complex in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has been ordered to take down a toran, a Hindu religious symbol, which hangs on the door frame of his condominium.
Akhilesh Tripathi filed a lawsuit May 2 against the Murano condominium complex, alleging religious discrimination, and violations of the Fair Housing Act. The single father of two adult children has lived at the complex since 2009. Shortly after he moved in, his daughter presented him with the toran; a Hindu priest blessed it before Tripathi hung it up.
The toran has since remained fastened to Tripathi’s door frame. “Mr. Tripathi wants people to know they are entering a blessed house,” Kevin Toth, Tripathi’s attorney, told India-West. “It is clear that religion played a role in not allowing Mr. Tripathi to display his toran,” he said.
Toth said the toran has no adverse impact to anyone else in the building. The homeowners’ association will have to prove that the toran negatively affects the building’s other residents, he said, noting this will be difficult to prove.
“They have no legitimate reason for invoking this rule,” said Toth.
Samir Kalra, managing director of the Hindu American Foundation, told India-West by e-mail: “We are deeply troubled to learn of the Murano Condominium Association's decision to single out Mr. Akhilesh Tripathi for hanging a toran on his door frame consistent with his deeply held religious beliefs as a practicing Hindu. Similar to Mr. Tripathi, millions of other Hindus across the world adorn their homes with a toran, an auspicious Hindu symbol intended to bless the home and welcome guests.”
“The selective application of the condo association's policies is particularly troublesome, given that other Murano residents have reportedly been allowed to freely display religious symbols on their door frames in conjunction with their respective religious beliefs. Such religiously discriminatory actions can have a chilling effect on religious freedom by sending a message that members of minority communities, such as Hindus, are not equal members of American society. Moreover, they violate civil rights and fair housing laws, and are inconsistent with our nation's ethos and values,” stated Kalra.
“Accordingly, we hope that Mr. Tripathi's federal lawsuit is successful in protecting his religious rights. Alternatively, in the interests of maintaining a welcoming community for all faiths and refraining from religious discrimination, we urge the Murano Condo Association to reverse its decision and allow Mr. Tripathi to continue hanging the toran outside his home, as he has been for the past decade,” he said.
A concierge at the Murano attempted to transfer a call by India-West to Jennifer McDonnell of Stonehenge Advisors, which manages the Murano. After a lengthy hold, the concierge said McDonnell would not be taking the call.
Monica Littman, attorney for the Murano, and Gary Krimstock, attorney for the Murano Homeowners Association, also had not returned calls to India-West by press time.
Previously, the Murano homeowners’ association had no objection to Tripathi’s toran. But new rules were implemented in February, stipulating the length of time holiday decorations could be displayed outside a homeowner’s door. Religious decorations that did not conform to a holiday were disallowed, and mandated to be removed immediately. All such decorations had to have the approval of the board before being displayed, according to the new policy.
Notably, the association does allow items affixed to the doorframe of a home; Tripathi noted in his suit that his toran was hung on the doorframe and not on the door. The association also allows a mezuzah, a parchment scroll traditionally placed by Jewish people on their front door.
Tripathi did not remove his toran. In April, he received a letter from McDonnell, stating: “The Board voted to allow door decorations during holidays that occur throughout the year.”
“If you would like to leave the door decorations in the photo below up you would need to write me an Email stating what holiday they are relating to & the time frame of the holiday. I will forward the Email to the Board for approval,” it said.
“If the door decoration does not relate to a current holiday, then they would need to be moved to the inside of your front door,” wrote McDonnell.
Tripathi sent back a note explaining the significance of the toran and said he had no plans to remove it. He then received a note forwarded by McDonnell from Krimstock advising him to take down the toran or face having it taken down by the homeowners association.
Tripathi wrote back, noting that mezuzahs were allowed. McDonnell countered, saying those had been approved by the board before they were hung; his toran had not. He received a subsequent letter April 26 stating that the toran “is unreasonably large, is not attached to the door frame, and is a permanent display.”
“Mr. Tripathi supports the rights of people of all faiths to display their religious symbols. Who are the homeowners association to decide which symbols are appropriate and which are not,” queried Toth to India-West. “This is an extreme case of insensitivity to a religion. We have argued that the rule is not religion-neutral,” he said.
The lawsuit noted the importance of the toran to the Hindu religion and culture. In traditional Hindu practice, a toran functions as a “gateway” with two or three lintels between two posts. A toran is also a common structure that adorns the entrance to Hindu temples, noted Tripathi in the suit. A toran is believed to make the home pleasing and attractive to the goddess of wealth, Lakshmiji, noted the lawsuit.
“This is my upbringing and my deeply embedded religious belief,” Tripathi told The Inquirer newspaper.