Driveway Painting Tests Religious Freedom

December 8, 2008

Author: Annie Gowen

Source: The Washington Post

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.