Earlier this month, we reported that Kennesaw, Georgia’s City Council voted 4 to 1 to deny a land use application by Suffa Dawat Center (the “Center”) to establish an Islamic place of worship and education center in a retail shopping plaza. On Monday, Councilmembers Leonard Church, Tim Killingsworth, Jim Sebastian and Debra Williams—all who had previously voted against the mosque—collectively moved for the Council to change its December 1 denial to an approval of the mosque proposal. A summary of the December 15 City Council meeting is available here.
After the denial, the Center’s attorney stated that the initial decision was discriminatory and violated RLUIPA. The City was also ridiculed by some who thought the denial was based on anti-Islam protests instead of sound zoning principles. The City at first responded to the criticism by explaining that it was concerned with traffic issues and preserving retail space. Reportedly, the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”) was monitoring the mosque proposal and may have considered filing a lawsuit to enforce RLUIPA if the City Council did not reverse itself. RLUIPA expressly provides that “The United States may bring an action for injunctive or declaratory relief to enforce compliance with [the statute].” 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-2(f). Although the City Attorney denied that the DOJ had threatened to sue, the Center’s lawyers allegedly were keeping the DOJ informed of the situation.
With the December 15th decision, the Center will now be allowed to operate in a 2,200-square-foot shopping center storefront for 24 months without conditions. Although Councilmembers did not comment on their reversal at the meeting, Councilwoman Debra Williams later noted that the decision came down to costs and the threat of an expensive federal lawsuit. Williams also remarked to the Marietta Daily Journal that “RLUIPA trumps.”