DOJ Settles Zoning Lawsuit Against City; Mosque Construction Will Proceed

WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department has settled a religious discrimination lawsuit brought late in President Obama's term against a Michigan city for turning down an Islamic center's zoning request to build a mosque.

The government lawsuit came after the American Islamic Community Center sued the city of Sterling Heights in August over the denial. The center wanted to build in the city as they said they've outgrown their building in Madison Heights, and most of their members currently live in Sterling Heights.

The city said then that the denial was based on “established land use criteria and not emotional feelings tied to religious beliefs either for or against the applicant.”

The American Islamic Community Center originally submitted the application in 2015, and said in their lawsuit that they met requirements but "with a vociferous and racist member of the planning commission leading the charge, the planning commission voted to reject the site plan."

According to the Detroit News, a former city planner urged rejection of the project because the spires in the construction plan, which spanned five adjoining parcels, were 27 feet taller than the maximum height allowed by the city and the 65-foot dome would “far exceed the height of other structures” nearby, making the scale and height "not harmonious with existing buildings."

Azzam Elder, attorney for the Islamic center, said in the lawsuit that there is evidence of Muslims being spat on, assaulted and threatened at public hearings, incidents that were reported but dropped by police.

The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division said the city violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 and imposed a "substantial burden" on the mosque members' right to exercise their faith. The DOJ said the current mosque building is "overcrowded during important religious observances and lacks space for educational activities, youth activities and special events."

This week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions' DOJ announced a settlement with the city after what Detroit's Channel 4 called a "fiery" city council meeting Tuesday to approve the deal.

"They feel really good," said Elder, the center's attorney. "They feel victorious. They feel that from an American perspective, it's a victory for all Americans, especially vulnerable Americans."

Under the deal, the dome of the mosque will be reduced to 61 feet and no outside sound amplification or street parking will be allowed. The mosque will have to provide shuttles for overflow parking.

Sterling Heights also agreed to publicize its non-discrimination policies and practices and report periodically to the Justice Department, as well as undergo training on the requirements of the Religious Land Use act, the DOJ said.

“Federal law protects the right of faith communities to build places of worship without discrimination or unreasonable burdens on their religious exercise,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Tom Wheeler of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement. “We commend the city of Sterling Heights for agreeing to approve the AICC’s mosque, so that it can serve its members and contribute to the surrounding community.”

U.S. Attorney Barbara L. McQuade of the Eastern District of Michigan, who grew up in Sterling Heights, said she was "proud that the city is taking steps to protect the religious rights of all of its residents.”