LOS ANGELES (CN) - An Islamic mosque claims in Federal Court that the City of Lomita bowed to political pressure and denied it permission to renovate, leaving it "resembling a refugee camp rather than a religious institution."
The Islamic Center of the South Bay, Los Angeles sued Lomita, its City Council and mayor and a former mayor, claiming they used zoning laws to unconstitutionally deny its application to turn eight houses into a single building on a 1½-acre lot.
Lomita, pop. 21,000, is south of Torrance and west of Long Beach in the Los Angeles metroplex.
"This action seeks to vindicate and safeguard plaintiff's civil rights. Defendant City of Lomita (the 'City') and defendant city officials have prevented ICSB from renovating its property, negatively and substantially impacting its congregants' ability to assemble, worship, and hold religious services. In doing so, defendants have impermissibly burdened plaintiff s religious exercise, expression, and association, and violated plaintiffs rights under the Free Exercise, Free Speech, Free Assembly, and Equal Protection Clauses of the United States and California Constitutions, and the RLUIPA [Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act]," the complaint states.
The mosque claims the City Council blocked its project in a unanimous decision in early 2010, citing concerns over traffic and parking.
However, the complaint states: "ICSB's renovation efforts were highly politicized and the city organized multiple community meetings discussing the project with neighbors. A small, but vocal, group of neighbors organized in opposition to the project by lobbying city officials and making public statements opposing the project at the multiple hearings. Indeed, city staff has repeatedly referenced neighbor concerns as a strong basis for the city's denial of ICSB's application."
The mosque says it reached out to its opponents, in vain.
At a meeting at an Islamic restaurant, only one person showed up, who said, "the project was not the cause of opposition, but rather, the fear of population growth of Muslim families," according to the complaint.
Henry Sanchez Jr., one of seven individual defendants, was a vocal opponent of the project and is now a city councilman, according to the complaint.
"To date, ICSB has been unable to renovate or unify its facilities into a single house of worship to accommodate the religious needs of the congregation, thereby substantially burdening the religious practice of ICSB's congregants. Its facilities remain inadequate, resembling a refugee camp rather than a religious institution," the complaint states.
It adds that the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the city's rejection of its project.
The mosque has 150 to 200 congregants, according to the complaint. It claims the center is connected by 80-year-old, disjointed houses that lack basic amenities. Aside from a prayer hall, the only common area is an outdoor space covered with a tarp.
The mosque seeks an injunction and general, special and punitive damages.
It is represented by Anne Richardson with Hadsell Stormer Keeny Richardson & Renick LLP of Pasadena.
Lomita is "disappointed" to learn that Islamic Center had "abandoned its efforts to work with the city toward redevelopment" of the mosque, its attorney Christi Hogin told Courthouse News.
"The frustration that the ICSB is experiencing is not religious discrimination as they have claimed but rather the garden-variety frustration that all developers complain about when they are engaged in the planning and zoning process, whether it is for commercial, retail, residential and institutional projects," Hogin said in an email. "All developers must comply with zoning regulations and sometimes that means building smaller structures than they would otherwise want. The city hopes the ICSB will return to the drawing board and complete its application for redevelopment, rather than make a federal case out of one unsuccessful development proposal."