DOJ Sues Michigan City for Denying Permit to Build Mosque

There’s been a raging controversy going on in Sterling Heights, Michigan (a suburb of Detroit) over a proposed special permit to build a mosque there. Many of the locals are A) predictably stupid and B) predictably bigoted. And now the DOJ is suing the city for turning down that permit.

Credit: JMacpherson https://www.flickr.com/photos/lipstickproject/16195812463
Credit: JMacpherson https://www.flickr.com/photos/lipstickproject/16195812463

The Justice Department filed a lawsuit today against Sterling Heights, Michigan, alleging that the city violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) when it denied special land use approval to allow the American Islamic Community Center Inc. (AICC) to build a mosque on five adjoining parcels of land located in the city.

The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Michigan, alleges that Sterling Heights discriminated against the AICC on the basis of religion when it refused to approve the land use request to allow the AICC to build a mosque. It further alleges that the denial imposed a substantial burden on the AICC’s religious exercise. The AICC, currently located in Madison Heights, Michigan, sought to build in Sterling Heights because the location is more convenient for its members and its current space has become inadequate for its religious, educational and social needs. The complaint alleges that its current facility is overcrowded during important religious observances and lacks space for educational activities, youth activities and special events.

“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,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division. “The Justice Department will continue to aggressively protect the rights of all communities to live, pray and worship free from religious discrimination and substantial burdens in local land use decisions.”

“The law prohibits the government from discriminating on the basis of religion or imposing a substantial burden on the exercise of religion when making land use decisions,” said U.S. Attorney Barbara L. McQuade of the Eastern District of Michigan. “We are alleging that Sterling Heights discriminated against the American Islamic Community Center on the basis of religion and placed a substantial burden on the community’s ability to exercise its religion by denying approval to build a mosque. We filed this lawsuit to protect the rights of all of our citizens to freely practice their religion and have a place to gather with members of their community.”

I am opposed to laws like RLUIPA and RFRA, which give religious individuals and organizations a “get out of the law” free card that is not available to the non-religious. But it’s still the law of the land and that means it cannot be selectively used to give exemptions to Christian groups but not to other religions. And in this case, there really is no doubt that this was just plain anti-Muslim discrimination. There are several lines of evidence for this.

The city rules for special permits were put in place in 2006. Since then, it has approved five such permits for the building of places of worship and never turned one down. Nor had it ever ordered an economic impact study, as they did in this case (that was the city council trying to kick the can down the road to avoid making a decision that would offend the largely ignorant and bigoted citizens who were haranguing them for even considering it.

At the meeting to consider the application, 50 people stood up to oppose it. They said things like “Remember 9/11″ and argued that the building of a Christian church in Iraq would not be allowed (which is just plain wrong, by the way; there is a long history of Christianity in Iraq, mostly Chaldeans, and there are many famous Christian churches there), so a mosque should not be allowed here. Another said that it should not be allowed because “they’re cutting people’s heads off, they kill our soldiers.” There were also many bigoted statements from members of the city council.

It’s just plain old discrimination and the DOJ is right to file a suit over it.

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