A Minnesota town is being sued by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for denying a zoning permit to a mosque.
Members of the Abu Huraira Islamic Center claim they were unconstitutionally denied the permit by the city of St. Anthony in 2012. On Wednesday, the DOJ agreed.
Speaking at a press conference about the suit, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lugar didn’t mince words.
“An injustice has been done,” Lugar announced. “I will not stand by while any religious group is subject to unconstitutional treatment that violates federal civil rights laws.”
He added, “Abu-Huraira’s right to hold prayer services in their building, in the city of St. Anthony, is the only resolution we seek. And we will not give up until we receive it.”
The lawsuit is the outcome of a federal investigation that spanned two years. As local NBC affiliate KARE 11 reports, the town’s rejection of the permit, which would have allowed construction of the mosque in a light industrial area, immediately followed a contentious public hearing. Local residents packed the meeting to express opposition to the plan, and their reasons didn’t exactly have much to do with the practicalities of urban planning.
Rather, they took aim at Islam itself. The vitriol hurled at the original public meeting has been well-recorded by local press, and likely formed the impetus for DOJ’s investigation and subsequent lawsuit.
“There is no other religion in the world that condones violence. Islam is evil,” said resident John Murlowski.
Added Rob Lundeen: “There are no pluses at all in letting this mosque into our city.”
Another unnamed resident told the mosque’s members, “Where did you come from? Change your own country.”
(The mosque’s members are mostly Somali.)
And if those sentiments sound familiar, well, they should. They strongly resemble the public reaction encountered by members of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, Tenn., who endured a years-long legal battle in order to establish a place of worship. Opponents claimed that Islam didn’t actually count as a religion, and members were accused of plotting to overthrow the U.S. government. After members obtained official approval to build the mosque, locals vandalized the construction site by setting fire to equipment.
And in Pocatello, Ida., residents attempted to block construction of a mosque this year, with one pastor arguing that the prospect of living near one made him “very fearful.” In Idaho, as in Tennessee, construction of the mosque eventually proceeded despite opposition.
That’s what should have happened in St. Anthony. City officials claim that they didn’t block the permit out of anti-Muslim animus, and pointed out that they refused a permit for a Christian church after denying the mosque. But that explanation didn’t satisfy DOJ.
Lugar noted that the city didn’t hesitate to approve a permit for a union meeting hall in the same industrial zone, and added that officials had no legal right to treat religious meetings differently than secular meetings.
For its part, the city vigorously rejects accusations of bias. “We believe that there was no discrimination. This is really a very simple matter,” Jay Lindgren, city attorney, told KARE. “This is about St. Anthony only allowing religious uses in the parts of the city that are not industrial zoned.”
But there’s enough evidence available to call Lindgren’s assertions into question. Given the city’s willingness to approve a permit for a union meeting hall in the same industrial area, it’s a bit suspicious that they would deny a permit for a mosque, which would have hosted assemblies of similar size. It’s particularly suspicious that the denial directly followed a contentious public hearing that showcased widespread local contempt for Islam.
As I’ve written here before, the First Amendment applies to everyone. It doesn’t matter if you like someone’s religion; it doesn’t even matter if you think their religion counts as a religion. That distinction isn’t yours to make.
Abu Huraira’s members, mostly Somali immigrants who escaped their war-ridden homeland for a chance at a safer, and presumably freer, life in the United States deserve the right to worship openly. No matter what their neighbors think.
PS: The Wall of Separation is on hiatus until Tuesday, Sept. 2. Enjoy the holiday!