A group of Sikh Temple of Yuba City members, unhappy with current temple management, occupied the facility on New Year’s Day and conducted activities that defied state COVID-19 health guidelines, prompting a Sutter County judge to order the immediate closure of the religious facility until further notice.
Temple attorney Michael Barrette said the individuals who occupied temple grounds were a dissident faction of the board of directors, which is comprised of 73 people. He said the issue stems from the fact that the temple was supposed to hold an election last spring for its board of directors, but because of COVID-19 and restrictions on gatherings, the vote has yet to occur.
A similar power struggle for temple leadership and takeover of the facility occurred on Jan. 1, 2016, prompting a Sutter County Superior Court judge to order the Sikh Temple closed and gates locked.
“We’ve tried over the years to convince people there are civil ways to make your disagreement known, that there are ways to resolve these issues rather than using force to take temple grounds,” Barrette said.
Barrette said surveillance footage from the temple on New Year’s Day showed a handful of dissenting directors opening up the gates to the facility and leading an estimated 50-60 people onto the grounds to worship before serving food buffet-style after service.
After consulting with temple leadership, Barrette sought and received an emergency order to disperse issued by Sutter County Judge Perry Parker. Law enforcement cleared temple grounds by the end of the day and restored its closed status. The temporary order was affirmed on Monday and requires the temple to remain closed to indoor worship and indoor service of food, pending further order of the court.
“The temple will always take strong and decisive action to protect its property from those who attempt to seize control without the benefit of civil, orderly, and lawful proceedings,” Barrette said. “The temple filed legal action to protect its rights.”
Parker’s court order does contain a safety valve that allows either party to make a motion to the court to change or modify its restrictions and restore access to the temple should Gov. Gavin Newsom or the California Department of Public Health issue new orders that roll back some of the state’s current COVID-19 guidelines on religious worship services.
The temple has been closed to the public in recent weeks after COVID-19 cases began to spike in the Yuba-Sutter area. Temple President Jaswant Bains said the main issue has been that some members have been unwilling to comply with certain safety guidelines, and the temple has a responsibility to keep both its employees and congregation safe.
“Our intention is not to close the gurdwara, but at this point it’s about health and safety and state guidelines,” he said. “Closing the temple down is the last thing we want to do. It’s been tough on everyone, and I understand the frustration, but I don’t want anyone to get sick or die from the virus.”
As part of its normal election process, temple membership (approximately 6,000 people) line up to cast ballots over a two-day period. Each temple member must be registered and verified to have proper identification to participate, which would be a logistical feat during a global pandemic, Barrette said. Efforts are being worked out on how to accommodate an election.
The temple’s Board of Directors are expected to meet before the end of the month to discuss plans moving forward.