LOS ANGELES (CN) - In a settlement with the Justice Department, the city of Lomita agreed to expedite an Islamic center's application to build a mosque.
The Islamic Center of South Bay sued Lomita last year after the city denied it permission to turn eight aging houses into a single building on a 1½-acre lot.
The City Council cited concerns about traffic and parking, but the Islamic Center claimed the city bowed to pressure from residents who opposed the mosque.
The Islamic Center said in its lawsuit that the City Council's denial would leave its property "resembling a refugee camp rather than a religious institution."
Up to 200 congregants were using 80-year-old houses without basic amenities, the center said in its complaint.
The Justice Department weighed in on Friday, suing Lomita for violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Uncle Sam claims that the state of the buildings prevent the community from being able to congregate and worship together.
The city's denial of the application had no "compelling governmental interest" and placed a "substantial burden on the religious exercise of the Islamic Center and its members," the Department of Justice said in its complaint.
Also Friday, the Justice Department filed a proposed settlement of the lawsuit, which is pending court approval.
In the 16-page settlement, Lomita agrees to fast-track a renewed application for the mosque.
City officials who make land-use decisions will also receive training on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
"Religious freedom is among our most fundamental rights, and there are few aspects of that right more basic than the ability of a religious community to come together for worship and fellowship in a decent and appropriate setting on its own property," assistant attorney general for civil rights Thomas Perez said in a statement. "With RLUIPA [Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act], Congress has sought to ensure that this basic right is protected from encroachment by unjustified local zoning actions."
Lomita attorney Christi Hogin told Courthouse News that the center had been part of Lomita's community for 25 years, and that from the city's point of view the dispute was about "traffic and parking."
"The city treated Islamic Center of South Bay the same as it would any developer of property in Lomita," Hogin said, calling the dispute a "tempest in a teapot."
"This is a story about a disappointed developer. It's not a story about a religious land use that's been frustrated," she added.
Hogin denied that the council had been swayed by opponents of the mosque when it voted 4-0 against the center. That vote came after a recommendation from the Planning Commission to approve the new mosque, according to the Justice Department's complaint.
"It's quite a feat to read the mind of a politician," Hogin said. "It was really just a denial based on the objective standards of the [land use] code."
Lomita, pop. 21,000, is south of Torrance and west of Long Beach in the Los Angeles metroplex. In Spanish, Lomita means "little knoll."
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