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Before you build a stairway to Heaven, you might want make sure it's okay with your neighborhood civic association. Take it from members of the Tien Tao Association of Houston.
Tien Tao is a universalist religion founded in China at the end of World War II. In English, "Tien Tao" means "the way to Heaven" or "the truth." Its practitioners, who are predominantly of Asian descent, believe there is truth in all religions, and they consider Jesus, Buddha, Confucius and Mohammed all to have been messengers of God -- or Tao -- who were sent to Earth to spread that truth. Tien Taoists also believe that the word of each messenger was tailored to fit his special time and place in the world.
In addition to lots of meditation and a strict vegetarian diet, Tien Taoists devote themselves to studying the teachings of those messengers by reading the Bible or the Koran or other holy books. Some members of the sect travel from city to city to proselytize. The local chapter of the association doesn't have figures on the number of Tien Taoists worldwide, but it claims there are about 2,000 believers in the Houston area.
Houston also is home to the religion's founder and worldwide spiritual leader, one Master Cheung. His devotees believe Master Cheung is God's worldly messenger in the here-and-now. If that's true, God must be Houston Proud, since, according to sect members, the eightysomething Cheung moved to Houston from Hong Kong about ten years ago at His direction.
Master Cheung was on the road, presumably spreading the truth, when the Press visited his home recently. But several of his followers were on hand and attempted to explain their religion.
"We believe the end is coming and that a lot of bad people are doing bad things," says Wayne Huang, a real estate broker who is secretary of the Tien Tao Association. As Huang spoke, other Tien Taoists passed around quarter slices of oranges or chopped vegetables in the kitchen. The only thing unusual about the interior of the house was a stack of ab>out 60 large kneeling pads that formed a wall between the kitchen and the den.
"In this crucial time," Huang went on as the fruit and vegetables were consumed, "God has sent Tao to save us from the catastrophe that is coming -- to bring peace to the world."
But peace has been hard to find for the Tien Taoists since 1994, when a board member of the local association purchased a $74,000 home in Kingsbridge Park and donated it to Master Cheung. The two-story house, in addition to serving as the master's domicile, is the site for Tien Tao prayer meetings and religious studies, as well as a kind of way station for acolytes who have taken to the road.
Kingsbridge Park is a walled development just off of Bissonnet and Highway 6 in far west Harris County, where the earth-tone brick homes are striking only in their similarity and residents practice their own brand of universalism. The homeowners even have their own Bible of sorts. It's called a set of deed restrictions. In English, deed restrictions translate into "enforced conformity." Members of the Kingsbridge Park Community Association are true believers in the words of their covenant. And since Master Cheung's arrival in the neighborhood, spiritual and contractual obligations have been colliding -- and have ended up in court.
Three months ago, state District Judge Scott Brister ruled that the Tien Tao Association was in violation of several provisions of Kingsbridge Park's deed restrictions. Last week, Brister refused to grant the association a new trial and ordered that it get right with the Lord by complying with the subdivision's property use guidelines. David Furlow, the Tien Taoists' attorney, argues that Brister's ruling is a violation of the sect's constitutionally protected religious freedoms.
"The effect of enforcing these deed restrictions is to impose restrictions on the First Amendment rights of these people to get together and conduct their religious service in a home," Furlow maintains.
At the conclusion of last week'>s court hearing, William Gammon, the lawyer who represents the homeowners association, declined to discuss the specific problems that his clients have with the Tien Tao Association, saying he needed to get permission before speaking with the Press. Gammon did not return subsequent phone calls. But according to correspondence and trial transcripts, the trouble between the Kingsbridge Park Community Association and the Tien Tao Association appears to have begun when several modifications were made to Master Cheung's home, without the prior approval of his fellow homeowners.
First, the Tien Taoists erected three 30-foot-high flagpoles -- one each for the American, Texas and Tien Tao flags -- in the back yard of the master's house, which backs up to Sugar Land-Howell Road, a main thoroughfare. (Ironically, the subdivision's model home also sported flagpoles -- in its front yard. The poles were removed before the lawsuit went to trial.) The Tien Taoists also replaced the grass in the back yard with caliche -- not for any religious reason; they simply didn't like mowing the yard. The sect members also had the audacity to change the color of the house's window shutters from beige to white, without permission from the civic association.