Driveway Painting Tests Religious Freedom

Washington, USA - A Loudoun County man was in big trouble over his driveway. And every day it was costing him $10 in fines.

Ram Balasubramanian had painted a Hindu religious symbol on his South Riding driveway for a family event. The six-foot design of swirling red and white paint was pretty enough, but his homeowners association was not impressed. They sent a stern certified letter ordering him to remove it and "return the asphalt to a black state."

Balasubramanian can't bear the idea of blacking out the kolam, he says, because it is a religious expression welcoming the Hindu goddess of prosperity and other guests into the home. For every day that he refused to remove it, the association charged Balasubramanian $10, which has now accrued to the maximum $900 fine. The association says it won't consider waiving the fine until the kolam is gone. Balasubramanian is not sure he has the strength -- or the money -- to keep fighting.

"If I have to remove it, it's going to be with a lot of pain," said Balasubramanian, 47. "Because of the emotional values I have for it. Whenever we have something auspicious in the house, we do not destroy it or apply black paint to it. Call it psychological or emotional. That's not something we could do in our value system."

Balasubramanian, a Realtor, is a devout Hindu who often hosts religious gatherings in his home. In May, he and his wife had a "thread" ceremony -- a coming-of-age ritual similar to a confirmation or bar mitzvah -- for their son Mukundh, 14. The elaborate two-day ceremony, conducted by priests, ended with a tented reception for 150 guests in the back yard. To welcome them, Balasubramanian had the kolam painted on the driveway.

A kolam is a design that women traditionally draw with rice flour on the front steps of their homes in southern India, often to welcome guests arriving for holidays or special occasions. By tradition, the kolam is impermanent, worn away by footsteps or rain by the end of the day. Balasubramanian's wife, Bharati, often drew kolams on the flagstone steps of the family's center-hall colonial. The big kolam was painted because rain was expected that weekend, and the couple didn't want it to wash away, he said. But then they decided to keep it.

The South Villages Homeowners Association soon sent Balasubramanian a certified letter noting "unapproved modifications" to the driveway. Jonathan Sucher, a representative for the company that manages the association, wrote an e-mail to Balasubramanian last week asking that he immediately remove the design. "This continues to be a fairly contentious issue," he wrote. Sucher did not return phone calls requesting comment.

Homeowners associations have rules governing everything from what color residents can paint their homes to where they can place a bird feeder or park their cars. Residents often challenge the associations over their rules, but the dispute between Balasubramanian and his association over the Hindu symbol raises questions of religious freedom -- and whether he signed those rights away when he chose to move into the community three years ago.

Experts in homeowner association law say that although residents give up some right to unfettered speech when they move in and agree to the rules, courts have at times sided with individual rights when associations tried to limit flags or signs. In the past, tempers have flared over holiday lights and Jewish mezuzas, which are attached to doorposts.

"Free speech and free expression are incredibly important values, but these are private communities with established rules in place to protect homeowners. . . . Bottom line, it's a tough dilemma," said Frank Rathbun, spokesman for the Community Associations Institute. The institute estimates that 50 million people in the United States live in such neighborhoods.

Balasubramanian's neighborhood of roomy brick colonials is one of many in Loudoun and western Fairfax County that draw residents from the area's thriving Indian community. Elderly parents visiting from overseas often run into others on their daily walks. The local Giant supermarket sells out of staples of vegetarian cuisine during holidays. One of the region's largest Hindu temples, Rajdhani Mandir, is nearby.

After an exchange of e-mails with the association, Balasubramanian organized an energetic appeal, polling 20 of his immediate neighbors to see whether they objected to the kolam. Nobody did.

He gathered signatures and appeared before the association's board, made up of volunteer residents, in September. The board listened but ruled against him. One asked why he simply couldn't move the kolam into the garage, where it would be out of sight.

"They were indifferent," said Krishnan Menon, a neighbor who attended the meeting. "He has some serious religious objections about wiping it clean or painting black on it. . . . If neighbors don't have any objections, why would the homeowners association want to change it so badly?"

The board referred the matter to their legal counsel and won't discuss waiving the $900 fine until after the kolam is gone, according to correspondence. Balasubramanian now fears he might have to end the standoff because he can't afford to hire his own lawyer.

"I don't have the strength to fight it," he said. "If the board feels so strongly about it at this point, there's no other option if I want to live in that community in peace and harmony."