Guyanese in Florida ordered to stop flying jhandi flag
-looks like 'a torn, tattered towel in a tree,' says community board
January 16, 2004
(Sun Sentinel) As a child in Guyana, Leila Persaud watched her parents and grandparents plant brightly coloured Hindu prayer flags on bamboo poles near their front doors.
The flags - called jhandis - were parts of religious ceremonies, symbols of faith and ways to show pride in being Hindu, Persaud said.
Persaud, a retired teacher living in the gated Rivermill community west of Lantana in Southern Florida said she faces fines and a trip to court if she continues to fly a jhandi in front of her house.
In an effort to force Persaud to move her flag out of sight, the Rivermill homeowners association board voted last year to ban religious symbols from all 377 of the community's front yards, except during a few weeks around official holidays such as Christmas.
Mike Magnanti, president of the board, said the rule was an attempt to address residents' complaints fairly that Persaud's jhandi looks like "a torn, tattered towel in a tree."
"If she wants to put it in front during a holiday period, that's OK," he said. "If she wants to display it during the full year, she needs to put it in her backyard."
Persaud and her priest, Rivermill resident Vishnu Sharma, say the rule discriminates against Hindus. Florida American Civil Liberties Union attorney Jim Green agrees.
"Unfortunately the [homeowners association] might have the power to pass such a discriminatory regulation," Green said.
"Whether such a discriminatory regulation would be enforceable in the state or federal courts is another question."
While the ban on religious symbols in front yards applies to every religion equally, the exceptions favour Christians, Sharma said.
Allowing residents to display religious symbols around officially recognised holidays such as Christmas and Easter might work for Christians, but it doesn't work for Hindus, he said.
Many Caribbean Hindus invite their priests to their homes each year on a birthday, a holiday or an auspicious day on the Hindu calendar to perform religious ceremonies called pujas.
Jhandis, reminders of the pujas, are supposed to fly high on bamboo poles in front of the devotees' houses for the rest of the year or until they are so tattered they must be thrown away, Sharma said.
Not all Hindus display jhandis, but the flags are common among Hindus from the Caribbean, said Sannyasin Arumugaswami, managing editor of the Hawaii-based magazine Hinduism Today.
That's because many of the Hindus who moved to Caribbean countries such as Guyana and Trinidad arrived in the 19th century from an area in central India - often called the Bhojpuri Belt - where jhandis are common, he said.
In addition to their religious significance, the flags have a cultural significance, Sharma said.
They are a way for a person to tell the world that he or she is Hindu and proud of it.
Persaud has refused to move hers from its spot by her front door. Her only concession has been to lower it so it's hidden among some bushes.
Rivermill resident Chris Latchman, who said he also received a warning from the homeowners association, settled on the same solution.
"I said, `I'm not moving it. It's my religion.' So I hid it instead. I don't like to hide it, but I just do it to prevent any aggravation," Latchman said.
Bill Singh, who also lives in Rivermill, said the homeowners association hasn't bothered him about the red jhandi that flies near his front door. But if it does, he says, he's ready for a court battle to keep the prayer flag where it is.
"It's my belief. It's my religion," he said. "I'm taking this very seriously."
Residents might not like it, but the homeowners association has the right to force them to move religious symbols out of sight, said lawyer David St. John, whose firm represents about 650 homeowners associations in Palm Beach and Martin counties.
"There's no restrictions on the [homeowners association], as it stands right now, on their authority to prohibit religious symbols," St. John said. "They can restrict flags and religious symbols. They just have to be consistent, and they can't selectively enforce it against different owners."
Seth Finkel, a member of the Rivermill homeowners association board who says he voted against the rule, said it's not being uniformly enforced.
Though Hindus are supposed to move their jhandis to their backyards, Jewish residents are allowed to keep mezuzahs near their front doors all year, Finkel said. The ornate finger-sized cases, which traditionally hold scrolls of Hebrew text, are allowed because they aren't big enough to be seen from the street, he said.
"They're all throughout the community," Finkel said.
In many other Palm Beach County communities, Hindus have not had problems flying their jhandis, said Vidya Heman, president of the Florida Hindu Cultural and Religious Association. But the county's Caribbean Hindu population is growing fast, she said.
Members of the community already have bought land to build two mandirs. One of the lots is near Lantana Road and Florida's Turnpike, not far from Rivermill.
As more Caribbean Hindus arrive, and more jhandis wave on bamboo poles at front doors, other communities could face decisions about how to balance the appearance of their neighbourhoods with the religious freedom of their new neighbours.
Green said it was an issue the American Civil Liberties Union might take on, starting at Rivermill.
"The ACLU has taken on homeowners associations before and won, so this might be something we would research," he said.