In the RLUIPA Round-Up post, we noted that the City of Sterling Heights, Michigan, is facing a federal lawsuit following its denial of the American Islamic Community Center’s (Center) zoning application to build a 20,500 square foot mosque.  The Center began searching for property it could purchase and construct a mosque, especially in the City where 80% of the Center’s members live.  The Center found a site along Fifteen Mile Road in the City consisting of five separate, contiguous parcels.  Currently, the Center is leasing the property with an option to purchase so long as it obtains a zoning permit to build a mosque.  But, according to the Center, the required zoning process – which ultimately resulted in denial of the application – was riddled with overt anti-Muslim animus and racism, including the following:

  • One member of the public speaking at the public hearing to say, “I wish they’d go to Dearborn or somewhere else, just not this area … I don’t want to be near people like this. This is not humanity.  My point is that it’s not right to live with people like this … this is not acceptable at all.  These people … they are scaring the public.”
  • This same member of the public allegedly held up an image of a woman in a burqa, with text stating “scaring and disgusting,” and urged the City to outlaw burqas in the City.
  • The planner contacted the now retired City police chief to see if “this imam and mosque [have] been completely vetted.” In response, the police chief contacted the FBI to “see if this mosk [sic] or Sayed Najah Al-Hussaini and Jaafar Chelab is on their radar.”
  • Another member of the public during the public hearing allegedly stated that “all Muslims who live in America are on food stamps. They are killers.”

Some of this may directly involve actions by public officials and as such may be actionable under the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).  Some is public comment and typically not actionable under RLUIPA, however, the Second Circuit ruled just a few years ago that discriminatory comments made by the public can, in some situations, support violations of RLUIPA.

Hundreds of individuals packed the room during the public hearing sessions to consider the application.  A large crowd of what appeared to be hundreds of individuals gathered outside and reportedly began chanting “no more mosque.”  Once the application was denied, the crowd that had gathered outside joyously erupted.  The crowd’s reaction to the denial can be seen in this news clip.

The Center has sued in federal court, claiming violations of RLUIPA, the U.S. Constitution, and Michigan law.  Specifically, the Center asserts the City’s zoning regulations violate RLUIPA’s equal terms provision on their face, since religious uses are allowed only by special land use approval whereas analogous secular assembly uses (municipal libraries, museums, recreational facilities, and administrative offices) are allowed as of right in the same residential zone.  The Center also claims the City treated it worse than other secular assembly uses that applied for and received zoning approval, and that the City’s denial substantially burdens its free exercise of religion as it cannot use the property for religious assembly including worshiping together as one spiritual family.

The Center’s complaint in American Islamic Community Center v. City of Sterling Heights is available here.