Town Closes Mosque on Eve of Ramadan

     MINEOLA, N.Y. (CN) - The town of Oyster Bay shut down the area's only mosque on the eve of Ramadan, leaving "scores" of Muslims "with no place to worship other than in the street," Muslims on Long Island Inc. claims in Nassau County Court. It's the second recent lawsuit accusing the town of xenophobic actions.     In May, a federal judge struck down an ordinance that Latino day laborers claimed was designed to "drive them out of their communities and out of the sight of residents who wish they were not there."
     The attorney for the Muslim plaintiffs compared the town's closure of the mosque to "shutting down a church on Christmas Eve or a temple on Yom Kippur. You don't do these things," attorney Steven Morelli told Courthouse News in an interview.
     The Muslim plaintiffs say the town cited "specious" code violations "designed to cover up the blatant discriminatory treatment that the mosque is receiving."
     Morelli said in the interview that the town inspected the Masjid Al-Baqi mosque (incorporated under the name Muslims on Long Island Inc.) in response to an anonymous chain email sent to Bethpage residents on July 28, 2010. Bethpage is an unincorporated hamlet within the town of Oyster Bay.
     According to the complaint, the chain email attacked a proposal for a new mosque in the town, stating: "This is not a Muslim neighborhood; we have no Muslim congregation in Bethpage. ... many of these organizations are on the FBI watch lists. I DO NOT WANT THIS IN MY NEIGHBORHOOD. THEY NEED TO GO ELSE WHERE. THIS IS THE MESSAGE WE NEED TO SEND." (Ellipsis in complaint.)
     The email added: "... The mosque on Central Ave [petitioners' mosque] opened without a word and now there are rumors that they are expanding. I also attached an article on how people stopped mosques from going up in a Catholic neighborhood in Staten Island, Brooklyn and the World Trade Center site." (Brackets in complaint.)
     According to the complaint, the email's anonymous author encouraged people to write town Supervisor John Venditto to complain about both mosques, and "many residents" complained that Masjid Al-Baqi's congregants parked in front of their houses.
     But they did not complain about other congregants parking to attend a Catholic church "directly up the street from the Mosque," the lawsuit states.
     One day after this email circulated, building inspector Michael Fabricio issued summonses to the Masjid Al-Baqi mosque for alleged safety issues with the electricity and plumbing. The mosque says it corrected those problems on Aug. 9.
     But on Aug. 10, the town ordered the Masjid Al-Baqi Mosque closed "for the purpose of appeasing non-Islamic, anti-Islamic members of the Bethpage community," according to the complaint.
     The email that prompted the closing also included a news article about efforts to oppose the construction of a mosque in Staten Island and an Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan, which has become known as the "Ground Zero Mosque," though it is two blocks away from the former World Trade Center site and cannot be seen from there.
     "For lack of a better term, the 'Ground Zero Mosque' has called attention to other mosques around the country," Morelli said in the interview. He called the Masjid Al-Baqi mosque "an entirely different kind of situation" because it has been part of the Oyster Bay community for 12 years, without any objections.
     The mosque was the area's only religious building for its approximately 150 Muslim congregants, Morelli said. He added, "They're seeking other places to worship at this point."
     Although congregants spent the eve of Ramadan worshipping "on the street," many now gather in homes, or attending mosques in more remote areas, he says.
     Oyster Bay has been named in at least two lawsuits that alleged discrimination. On May 19, advocacy groups challenged its ordinance barring Latino day laborers from the streets. Two days later, a federal judge struck down the ordinance.
     In July, a complaint filed in Florida alleged that a Florida staffing firm sent laborers to Oyster Bay, where they were packed 15 at a time in a motel room.
     Morelli says his clients are trying to avoid another well-publicized lawsuit. He said in the interview that he has withdrawn his original petition and is negotiating with the town of Oyster Bay. He said he expects the congregants to return to their mosque in the "next few days."
     "If that's not accomplished and I see that they're not acting in good faith, I'm going to refile," Morellis said. He said his clients have "no desire to publicize" the town's actions, which came at the same time as a series of anti-mosque demonstrations across the country - demonstrations that made Page 1 of last Saturday's New York Times.
     "They're just looking for a place to pray," Morelli said.