City sued after mosque proposal denied by panel

By Corey Williams
Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) — A suburb north of Detroit faces a federal lawsuit after a religious organization’s proposal for a 20,500-square-foot mosque in a residential neighborhood was denied in 2015, with prosecutors saying it was discrimination.

The U.S. Attorneay’s office filed the suit against Sterling Heights last Thursday in federal court in Detroit.

The Sterling Heights planning commission voted against a special land agreement sought by the American Islamic Community Center for the mosque, which the lawsuit said constituted discrimination on the basis of religion and imposed a “burden on the religious exercise” of the center.

City officials said in a statement last Thursday that the center’s application denial was not based on religion. The lawsuit noted that Sterling Heights’ planning office initially recommended approval of the application.

Fifty people spoke against the plan — which called for 130 off-street parking spaces, a 58-foot-high dome and two 66-foot-high spires — during public comment at an Aug. 13, 2015, meeting. Some cited traffic congestion. But the seven who spoke in support said the issue was anti-Muslim bias.

“Many of the comments were directed at the religion of the petitioner, including a plea to ‘remember 9/11,’” according to the lawsuit.

The city’s planner issued a report about a week before the Sept. 10, 2015, application vote that reversed the earlier approval. Sterling Heights maintained last Thursday that that planning commission denial was 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.”

There are two existing mosques, Sikh and Buddhist temples and Christian churches of various denominations in Sterling Heights, the city said.

About 300 families are members of the American Islamic Community Center, which holds services and programs in a 10,000-square-foot building in nearby Madison Heights. A majority of its members live in Sterling Heights, according to the U.S.
Attorney’s office.

The center filed its own federal civil suit this summer, saying Sterling Heights is in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and the U.S. Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause.

“The whole reason behind filing the lawsuit is to be able to build a new house of worship for the community,” said Azzam Elder, an attorney representing the center. “It’s egregious what the city has done to its own residents which happen to be of a different faith.”