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U.S. sues Sterling Heights over denied mosque permit

Dec 15, 2016

The U.S. Justice Department has filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city of Sterling Heights, accusing the city of religious discrimination when it denied a permit to build an Islamic Center and mosque in 2015.

Specifically, 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 government says in a complaint.

The AICC had purchased the land through an intermediary and was planning to build an expanded facility there. Group leaders said its current location in Madison Heights was too small, and most of the current congregation lives in Sterling Heights.

According to the government, the city planner initially produced a report recommending approval for the mosque. A first report said the proposed facility “met all of the specific standards for residential zones and all of the general standards for Special Approval Land Use,” in compliance with city zoning rules and its master plan.

Other city officials also initially expressed support for the mosque. However, they soon faced a large public backlash.

At an August 2015 city council meeting, members of the public spoke out against the mosque, in comments often tinged with anti-Islamic rhetoric.

“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 government says in its complaint.

Many members of Sterling Heights’ substantial Chaldean (Iraqi Christian), which includes many recent immigrants, were also strongly opposed to the mosque.

Following the outcry, many of those local elected officials later reversed themselves, the government’s complaint states.

The city planner also did so, and “recommended denial based on excessive height relative to the neighborhood, the size of the building relative to the zoning district, insufficient parking on certain occasions, and lack of harmony of the building with the neighborhood,” the complaint states.

The City Planning Commission eventually denied the permit September 10th, as protesters gathered outside to cheer the decision. They cited zoning concerns, particularly the mosque’s proposed height.

However, the government points out that a number of Sterling Heights churches had even higher spires, as well as other “distinctive features.”

“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 DOJ's 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 city of Sterling Heights responded in a written statement: “The city has cooperated fully with the Department of Justice in this matter, and is surprised and disappointed in its decision to initiate this lawsuit at this time.”