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Religion and Forced Labor

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The thing about religious fanaticism (well one of many things) is that can be a very easy excuse for labor exploitation. If you don’t work 16 hours a day for no pay, you must hate the god of your choice, whether the Big JC or the cult leader in your house in Seattle in 1972. So it’s hardly surprising then that the ridiculously gigantic new Hindu temple in New Jersey has forced labor written all over it.

Federal law enforcement agents raided the temple construction site in 2021 after workers accused the builders, a prominent Hindu sect with ties to Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and his ruling party, of forced labor, low wages and poor working conditions. Their lawyers said workers who were Dalit, the lowest rung in India’s caste system, were specifically targeted. A federal criminal investigation is ongoing, as is a wage claim lawsuit.

A spokesman for the temple, Ronak Patel, said the workers came to the United States as volunteers, not as employees, and that volunteerism is a core part of their faith tradition. He said that temple officials were cooperating with the investigation.

In the meantime, the temple, which sits on 180 acres and includes 10,000 statues and spires nearly 200 feet tall, is attracting visitors by the thousands, some there to view the elaborate architecture and design, others for a more spiritual experience.

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Even as visitors are making their way to the Robbinsville temple, the treatment of some of the people who worked on its construction is still at issue.

When the temple was raided in 2021, dozens of workers were taken from the construction site. Twenty-one temple workers filed a lawsuit that year, though this month, 12 of them pulled out of the suit. Their lawyer, Aaditya Soni, who is based in Jaipur, said in a text message that the workers believe the facts of the case are false and that they decided to pull out based on religious conviction.

Patricia Kakalec, a lawyer for the workers, says she plans to continue fighting for nine of the laborers who are part of the complaint, but their civil claim is on hold pending a federal investigation.

In addition to the wage issues at the temple, a 17-year-old boy who was volunteering on the construction fell to his death there in 2017. Federal inspectors determined it had been an accident.

The conflict illustrates the complicated lines between U.S. labor laws and the religious concept of selfless volunteerism, which Hindus believe is a key part of their tradition.

“If religious groups are subject to all of the restrictions that apply to other groups, it’ll restrict what they’re able to do,” said Charles Haynes, a senior fellow for religious liberty at the nonprofit Freedom Forum.

“But if there’s real exploitation here,” he added, “BAPS could be on the hook for government intervention.”

While this is of course New Jersey and not California, this is another reason why Governor Empty Suit Newsom should have signed the caste discrimination bill in his state.

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