(CN) – The federal government claims a Detroit suburb discriminated against an Islamic center by denying its application to build a new mosque closer to where most of its members live.
U.S. Department of Justice attorneys filed a lawsuit Thursday against the city of Sterling Heights in Detroit federal court, alleging it violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act when it denied the American Islamic Community Center’s special approval land use application to construct a new mosque.
The Islamic center is currently located in Madison Heights, about 11 miles from the center of Sterling Heights, the complaint states.
But the current building has become inadequate for the needs of the AICC community, as the building is about 10,000 square feet and overcrowded during important religious observances, the government says.
And because the majority of the AICC’s members live in Sterling Heights, the complaint states, the suburb is a more convenient location for the community than in Madison Heights.
In January of this year, Jaafar Chehab, an AICC board member, bought five contiguous plots of land totaling a little more than four acres in Sterling Heights and entered into a lease contract with AICC, in which he would lease the property to AICC for 10 years with an option to purchase upon approval from Sterling Heights to build a mosque, the complaint states.
The five plots are zoned for residential use, and according to Sterling Height’s zoning ordinance, a place of worship may be permitted within a residential zone as a special approval land use.
Last year, before he bought the land, Chehab submitted a special approval land use application to the Sterling Heights City Planning Office.
The application included a site plan for a proposed mosque of about 20,000 square feet with 130 off-street parking spaces, a dome 58-feet high and two spires 66-feet high each, the complaint states.
Even though the AICC’s application met all of the specific standards for residential zones and all of the general standards for special approval land use outlined in Sterling Height’s zoning ordinance, AICC’s application was ultimately denied after Sterling Heights residents spoke out against it, according to the Justice Department.
“Many of the comments were directed at the religion of the petitioner, including a plea to ‘Remember 9/11,’ statements that Christians would not be allowed to build a church in Iraq, and statement that property values would drop if a mosque were built in the neighborhood,” the complaint states.
Council members and the mayor were running for re-election during this time, and the AICC’s application was a key election issues, according to the lawsuit.
The Justice Department says Mayor Michael Taylor posted the following message on Facebook on Aug. 28, 2015: “Let me set the record straight. I am the Mayor of Sterling Heights. I am opposed to this mosque being built on 15 Mile Road. It is sad that my political opponents are lying to you and trying to scare you into thinking I am insensitive to the Chaldean people throughout the world. My heart breaks for the Christians in Iraq and throughout the world who are being terrorized by Islamic terrorists. I will do EVERYTHING in my power to protect, support and defend the Chaldean population in Sterling Heights. I have nothing to do with this mosque and do not want it built there.” (Emphasis in original.)
Chaldean refers to members of the Chaldean Catholic Church, a church composed primarily of people of Iraqi descent, the complaint states.
On Sept. 10, 2015, Sterling Heights rejected the application at a City Planning Commission Meeting, during which a large crowd of nearly 500 protesters gathered in the parking lot and the city hall, reaching full capacity, the complaint states.
“The city’s treatment and denial of the Application constitutes discrimination against the AICC on the basis of religion or religious denomination,” the government’s lawsuit says.
The Justice Department seeks a court order preventing Sterling Heights from enforcing zoning restrictions in a way that violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
Sterling Heights said in a statement Thursday that it “has cooperated fully with the Department of Justice in this matter, and is surprised and disappointed in its decision to initiate this lawsuit at this time.”
“The city maintains that the AICC application for special approval land use to construct a mosque was considered and denied by the City’s Planning Commission based on established land use criteria including the incompatibility with adjoining uses, insufficient parking, as well as overall size and height of the building, and not emotional feelings tied to religious beliefs either for or against the applicant,” the city said. “The city welcomes the AICC along with any other religious groups to Sterling Heights and we will continue an open dialog to address areas of disagreement with respect to land use.”
Sterling Heights is in Macomb County and is the second largest suburb in the Detroit metropolitan area, with a population of about 129,000 people.