City Can’t Nix Muslims’ Evidence of Zoning Bias

     ATLANTA (CN) – A federal judge refused to exclude evidence in a lawsuit against an Atlanta suburb that allegedly used rezoning to prevent an Islamic organization from building a larger worship center.

     In its federal complaint, the A.G.A. Islamic Organization claimed that Lilburn, Ga., officials repeatedly rejected its application for an expanded Islamic center, despite A.G.A.’s efforts to comply with the city’s zoning ordinance.
     In 2008, when A.G.A. first applied to expand its worship center onto a nearby property, the city informed the organization that the 3.5-acre lot, which was partially zoned as residential, needed to be rezoned for A.G.A.’s intended use.
     Shortly thereafter, A.G.A. claims, the city amended its zoning ordinance to require a 5-acre minimum lot size for religious institutions in districts such as the one A.G.A. sought. The organization canceled its original contract and found a larger property for its expansion plan. Since the new property was zoned as residential, A.G.A. asked the city to rezone it and applied for a special-use permit to build larger facilities, including a gymnasium and a cemetery, according to the complaint.
     In November 2009, the city denied A.G.A.’s applications.
     Six months after A.G.A. filed its federal lawsuit, the city repealed the 5-acre requirement and amended the zoning ordinance, banning a cemetery within walking distance of A.G.A.’s Islamic Center. In response, A.G.A. submitted a revised plan for a religious facility on a smaller property, without a gym and a cemetery. However, the city once again rejected the amended application.
     In the ongoing litigation, the city asked the court to exclude all materials related to A.G.A.’s revised site plan and amended application, arguing that the evidence was irrelevant and unfairly prejudicial.
     The court disagreed. U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash rebuffed the city’s claim that it had denied A.G.A.’s amended application largely based on the plaintiff’s intention to build a cemetery on the site – not on religious considerations.
     “The fact that the city rejected an amended application that did not include a cemetery is highly relevant in assessing this argument,” Thrash wrote. “Moreover, while these materials may be unfavorable to the city’s position, they are not unfairly prejudicial.”
     The court also rejected the city’s semantic argument that certain affidavits using the term “Imambargah” – instead of mosque – to refer to A.G.A.’s worship center were irrelevant and misleading.
     The city had asked the court to exclude materials related to alleged religious burdens based on A.G.A.’s inadequate facilities, claiming that A.G.A. had failed to timely disclose such information.
     Thrash admitted the evidence, noting that the city had failed to request information about the specific religious burdens during discovery.
The court agreed to exclude a testimony from the president of A.G.A., who speculated that the city had enacted its 5-acre requirement to hinder A.G.A.’s expansion plans.

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