Islamic Academy Vaults Michigan Zoning Hurdle

     DETROIT (CN) — A Muslim group will get its school in Pittsfield Charter Township, Michigan, after the community reached a settlement Thursday of discriminatory zoning claims.
     Pittsfield denies any wrongdoing, but the 15-page consent order filed in U.S. District Court
     makes clear the township faces consequences for its seemingly unjustified denial.
     As alleged by the Justice Department last year, Pittsfield refused a rezoning request in October 2011 from the Michigan Islamic Academy.
     The pre-K-through-12th-grade school already has a building in nearby Ann Arbor and bought a vacant lot in Pittsfield to build a new facility for its expanding needs.
     Pittsfield refused to rezone the more-than 26 acres of land in question, however, from its residential designation.
     Under the terms of the settlement, the academy will be allowed to construct its new school, and Pittsfield must publicize in postings at its governmental building, as well as on their website, that discriminatory practices will not be tolerated.
     The township’s employees must undergo training to familiarize themselves with Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.
     “Federal law protects the religious beliefs, freedoms and practices of all communities, including the right to build religious institutions free from unlawful and unfair barriers,” said Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant attorney general and head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “This agreement will allow the Michigan Islamic Academy to build the facility it needs to serve its members and contribute to the community of Pittsfield.”
     Pittsfield will have to report its progress to the Department of Justice for at least five years. The township will also be required to disclose all amendments made to its zoning ordinances and maintain records of all complaints made about any alleged restrictions or any reports of threatening behavior toward the Michigan Islamic Academy, its members or anyone else similarly situated.
     U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade noted that “the law prohibits the government from imposing land use regulations that substantially burden religious exercise unless there is a compelling government interest and the government uses the least restrictive means of achieving that interest.”
     In the separate settlement between the Michigan Islamic Academy and the township, Pittsfield agreed to pay $1.7 million to resolve claims for damages and attorneys’ fees caused by the 2011 denial and the delay in construction of the school.

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