End Times

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.

And while the flagpoles, caliche and the white shutters no doubt resulted in many a sleepless night for the other property owners on Amber Grove Court, it was the construction of an additional room -- and its use as a temple -- that really drew the wrath of the Kingsbridge Park Community Association. The 20-foot-by-40-foot room -- which currently has a white stone floor, an altar, candles and bowls of fruit -- was built to be used by the Tien Taoists for meditation and prayer. As its use increased, so did the number of cars parked on Amber Grove Court and other nearby streets at all hours of the day and night. Construction of the room apparently was the final straw for the neighbors, who say they had been led to believe the addition was to be used as a playroom.

Helena >Saucedo, who lives next door to Master Cheung, testified that the increased traffic, the extra cars on the street, the caliche, the construction of the additional room and the change in the color of the shutters made her fear the value of her own home would decline, so she began logging her complaints in her computer.

"It started off with three, four, five [cars]," said Saucedo. "The most I've ever seen would be at least nine cars parked there. I have 29 license plates that I have taken down of different people coming and going."

Besides being under Saucedo's vigilant eye, the Tien Taoists also believe their neighbors have tried to harass them into complying with the deed restrictions. Agents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service made a surprise visit to Master Cheung's home last year to see if everyone there was in this country legally. Truant officers from the Alief school district also dropped by the house, as did deputies from the Harris County Sheriff's Department, who were called to investigate a report of illegally parked cars. In each of those instances, the authorities failed to find any violations, says Furlow, who contends that residents of the ethnically mixed neighborhood placed his clients under scrutiny because they are different.

"I don't think it's so much overt racism as it is a growing anti-foreign mentality," he says. "Asians stick out more. People who are perceived as being different often get hammered."

About a year ago, an attorney for the civic association sent the Tien Taoists a letter enumerating the complaints and demands of the homeowners. In addition to removing the flagpoles and the caliche and returning the shutters to an approved color, the notice called for an end to the religious activity at the home.

"The running of a temple on the Property, and its use for anything other than a single family residential purpose, is strictly prohibited E." read the letter. When the sect members refused to comply, the civic association filed its lawsuit.

At the conclusion of a two-day trial last fall, Brister ruled that the Tien Taoist Association had indeed violated Kingsbridge Park's deed restrictions. The judge ordered the association to remove the flagpoles and the caliche and to repaint the shutters, and he restricted the Tien Taoists' parking to Master Cheung's driveway and the street in front of the house. He also instructed the group to "use the property in a manner consistent with [a] single family" residence.

Furlow refuses to concede that his clients have violated the subdivision's property-use restrictions. But even if they have, he contends that the restrictions -- and Brister's enforcement of them -- are unconstitutionally broad. In the first place, says Furlow, the Tien Taoists should be able to park wherever they choose -- as long as they park legally. More important, he claims, the Tien Taoists have drawn the attention of the civic association simply because of their religion.

"The fact that these people have conducted religious services in their home," says Furlow, "should not be the subject of a lawsuit by any community association, no matter how anti-religious they are."

Furlow plans to appeal Brister's ruling and will also file a fair housing complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. By the time any decisions on the appeals are made, though, the issue may have resolved itself.

Within two or three months, construction on the first phase of a new Tien Tao temple is scheduled to be completed on Ashford Point, not far from Master Cheung's home. The striking five-story structure will be stark white in color and will provide 40,000 square feet of floor space, considerably more than the house on Amber Grove Court. The new temple, which will carry an eventual price tag of more than $6 million, will include a three-story, copper-colored geodesic dome that will serve as "the palace of the God." The dome, and two smaller ones, will eventually be hoisted atop the structure, ensuring that the temple w>ill stand out like the Taj Mahal among the apartment complexes and strip centers in the area. The structure is the first of its kind for Tien Tao, whose followers hope to have the first floor operational for services before the summer.

While the opening of the temple may resolve the Tien Tao Association's differences with its neighbors in Kingsbridge Park, attorney David Furlow predicts the larger issue of deed restrictions conflicting with the constitutional rights of homeowners will never be so easily resolved. More such disputes are likely, he says, given the stricter enforcement of neighborhood covenants following the defeat of Houston's proposed comprehensive zoning ordinance in 1993.

"I'm not opposed to deed restrictions that are reasonable," says Furlow. "But the greatest threat to civil liberties is this hall monitor mentality, where people insist on minding their neighbor's business.

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