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Sterling Heights settles lawsuits, green-lighting contentious mosque project

Feb 22, 2017

The city of Sterling Heights has agreed to settle two federal religious discrimination lawsuits, and allow the American Islamic Community Center to build a mosque in the city.

The Sterling Heights City Planning Commission denied the AICC’s application for a permit in 2015. The Commission cited traffic, parking and height concerns about the proposed mosque.

But the project also faced heated opposition from some residents, much of it fueled by anti-Muslim rhetoric. The AICC, and later the federal government, said it was a case of religious discrimination.

Detroit U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade says the city’s objections to the project broke down under scrutiny. She noted that the spire of a nearby Catholic church is 151 feet high, but Sterling Heights objected to the mosque’s proposed 66-foot spires.

Federal law says that “cities cannot place unnecessary burdens on places of worship” unless they can prove there is a “compelling governmental interest” to do so, McQuade says. She said the settlements show the power of the law to restrain “religious intolerance.”  

"We need to get over this irrational fear, when we perceive people as other."

“We need to get over this irrational fear, when we perceive people as other,” McQuade said. “When it comes to religious land use the law requires it, and here we are committed to enforcing it.”

AICC attorney Azzam Elder says the local Muslim community is “very relieved” about the settlements. But he says the group is concerned enough about an ongoing backlash—still very much in evidence as the Sterling Heights City Council approved the deal this week--to put some precautions in their settlement.

“Over the next five years, we will be monitoring what we feel [are] potential hate groups,” said Elder. And the court will “retain jurisdiction for next five years, to make sure that we don’t have to start all over again.”

But Elder says the mosque will try to balance that with an open-door policy to the community. He noted that 70% of AICC’s members live in Sterling Heights, and have for some time. “They’re not new to Sterling Heights,” he said.

Elder says some details of the AICC’s settlement will remain confidential.

In the federal settlement, Sterling Heights agreed to post signs and online notices stating its compliance with relevant federal law, and that “Sterling Heights does not discriminate against religious exercise.” It will also train city employees about the law, and periodically update the court on compliance.

A federal judge still needs to sign off on both deals.

Sterling Heights doesn’t admit any wrongdoing in the settlement. A statement posted on the city’s website said the settlements are in the best interest of Sterling Heights residents, adding that “issues of parking, traffic and overall size of the dome and spires initially raised by the Planning Commission have been addressed.”

It also gives a nod to the Macomb County city’s growing ethnic and religious diversity.

“Sterling Heights is a community that has and continues to welcome all faiths,” Sterling Heights Mayor Taylor said. “The addition of the Mosque as a place of worship will add to the wide variety of places of worship across the City, including numerous churches, two other previously existing Mosques, a Sikh Temple, a Buddhist Temple and a BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir.”