The United States Department of Justice has filed a 20-page lawsuit against a city in Michigan for denying a permit to build a Mosque. The DoJ alleges that the city, Sterling Heights, Michigan, violated federal law by discriminating against the American Islamic Community Center on the basis of religion.
Head of the DoJ's civil rights division Vanita Gupta said in a statement, “The Constitution protects the rights of religious communities to create the institutions and physical spaces they need to observe and practice their faith free from discriminatory barriers."
The issue dates back to 2014, when the Islamic community center ran out space at their current location in Madison Heights. The complaint says that they were seeking a location with more washroom space and a larger area for special events.
A board member for the community center purchased land for the new mosque, and the complaint reads “Additional space is necessary for the AICC to offer programs for families to keep them involved in the community,” it reads, and also says that a location in Sterling Heights would be more convenient for their members because most of them live there.
In 2015, the AICC submitted an application for the potential site that included a 20,000 square footage worship center and parking lot with over 100 parking spots. When it was time for the city's planning commission to review the application, the Sterling Heights city planner presented the proposal and recommended approval, then opened up a public comment period. Fifty people spoke against the proposal and only seven people supported it.
The DoJ's complaint notes, "Many of the comments were directed at the religion of the Petitioner, including a plea to ‘Remember 9/11,’ statements that Christians would not be allowed to build a church in Iraq, and statements that property values would drop if a mosque were built in the neighborhood."
The controversy continued to gain steam, and the DoJ complaint alleges that during another public meeting the following week, one resident held up a picture of "a woman wearing a garment that covered her head and stated that he did not want to 'be near people like this.'"
At the time, the city's mayor Michael Taylor also spoke out against the proposed mosque on social media, posting on his Facebook, “I will do EVERYTHING in my power to protect, support and defend the Chaldean population in Sterling Heights ... I have nothing to do with this mosque and do not want it built there.”
After the public outcry, the city planner reversed his recommendation the following month and withdrew his recommendation to approve the permit. The city planning commission then denied the request.
The DoJ's lawsuit recommends a judge require the city of Sterling Heights to comply with the following demands:
- Declare the city’s policies violate federal law for religious land use
- Train city personnel and establish procedures to address religious land use complaints
- Not impose a substantial burden on the religious exercises of the AICC or to apply laws that violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act
Sterling Heights officials addressed the lawsuit in a statement that expressed that the city has a “solid reputation” of tolerance and inclusiveness that is “reflected in a wide variety of places of worship across the city." It also said the city is surprised to see the federal government resort to the lawsuit because it maintains the city fully cooperated with the DoJ.
“The city maintains that the AICC application for special approval land use to construct a mosque was considered and denied by the city’s planning commission based on established land use criteria including the incompatibility with adjoining uses, insufficient parking, as well as overall size and height of the building, and not emotional feelings tied to religious beliefs either for or against the applicant,” the statement also said.
“The city welcomes the AICC along with any other religious groups to Sterling Heights and we will continue an open dialog to address areas of disagreement with respect to land use.”