The Hindu sect known as Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) has a few large (beautiful) temples around the U.S., but the one in Robbinsville, New Jersey is now in the news for all the wrong reasons.
According to a federal lawsuit filed yesterday, the denomination has effectively been using forced labor to build that New Jersey temple — potentially the largest Hindu temple in the country — bringing in dozens of low-caste workers from India, paying them roughly $1.20/hour, and forcing them to live on temple property.
They were brought to the United States on religious visas, or R-1 visas — temporary visas used for clergy and lay religious workers such as missionaries — and presented to the U.S. government as volunteers, according to the claim. They were asked to sign several documents, often in English, and instructed to tell U.S. embassy staffers that they were skilled carvers or decorative painters, the complaint said.
Lawyers for the men, however, said they did manual labor on the site, working nearly 13 hours a day lifting large stones, operating cranes and other heavy machinery, building roads and storm sewers, digging ditches and shoveling snow, all for the equivalent of about $450 per month. They were paid $50 in cash, with the rest deposited in accounts in India, the complaint said.
Federal agents raided the property yesterday morning and removed about 90 workers from the site. The temple denies any wrongdoing.
BAPS has “strong ties” with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu Nationalist. Modi even spoke at the funeral for the denomination’s spiritual leader a few years ago. Pleasing Modi, BAPS has promised to build a temple in a space that controversially housed an Islamic mosque before it was destroyed by Hindu extremists.
This isn’t even the first story this week that involves a religious group using forced labor. When Pastor Ernest Angley died this week, we were reminded that his church once pressured members to provide free labor for his for-profit buffet. Their lawsuit against the church was later dismissed, however, after an appellate court said minimum wage laws only applied to workers if they expected to be paid; these people were volunteers.
There’s no reason to think the situation at BAPS will be able to use that excuse, though. The lawsuit says the workers were brought in to provide manual labor and they were not considered volunteers at all. (Most weren’t even members of the BAPS denomination.)
Once again, religion reminds us it’s not synonymous with virtue. Bad people will do bad things, and religion often gives people the tools they need to evade scrutiny. Thank goodness these workers were willing to speak up.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Scott for the link)