The U.S. Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit against the City of Sterling Heights claiming the Detroit suburb was biased against Muslims when it shot down a plan to build a mosque there last year.
The Justice Department claims in the lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Detroit that Sterling Heights officials catered to the fears and views of anti-Muslim residents who showed up at public meetings and expressed views of all sorts in opposition to the mosque.
One person said “Remember 9/11,” according to the lawsuit, while another held up a picture of a woman wearing a head covering and said he didn’t want to “be near people like this” and a third person asked Homeland Security to screen the group that wanted the mosque, saying “they’re cutting people’s heads off; they kill our soldiers.”
And it wasn’t just residents who made such comments, the federal government claims, but elected officials did, too. According to the lawsuit, Sterling Heights Mayor Michael Taylor once asked whether the mosque could appear “less Middle Eastern” and more “generic.”
The Justice Department lawsuit comes four months after the American Islamic Community Center filed its own lawsuit against the city, alleging Sterling Heights unlawfully denied the AICC an application for a special land use to build a mosque on 15 Mile between Ryan and Mound roads.
Both lawsuits accuse Sterling Heights of violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act — a 16-year-old law that prohibits the government from engaging in religious discrimination when making land use decisions.
The Justice Department lawsuit notes that since 2006, no application for special approval land use for a place of worship has been denied in Sterling Heights, “with the exception of the application” for the mosque. However, during this same period, the lawsuit notes, the city approved five special land use applications for places of worship.
At issue is a 9-0 vote by the Sterling Heights Planning Commission last year to reject building the mosque. City officials and residents have said their rejection was not based on bigotry, noting that the city already has a mosque, but over concerns that the location was not suitable for such a large building and could cause traffic problems.
But the federal government isn’t convinced.
According to the Justice Department lawsuit, the AICC, which is currently located in Madison Heights, wanted to build in Sterling Heights because it needed a more convenient location for its members and more space. The current facility, the suit alleges, is overcrowded during religious observances and isn’t big enough to accommodate all of the group’s educational and youth activities and special events. So the group embarked on a plan to build a bigger mosque in Sterling Heights, but was shot down.
“The Constitution protects the rights of religious communities to create the institutions and physical spaces they need to observe and practice their faith free from discriminatory barriers,” Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division, said in a statement. “The Justice Department will continue to aggressively protect the rights of all communities to live, pray and worship free from religious discrimination and substantial burdens in local land use decisions.”
Sterling Heights has denied the allegation, saying the city has long embraced diversity and inclusiveness and “continues to be interested in collaborating with the American Islamic Community Center (AICC).”
“The City has cooperated fully with the Department of Justice in this matter, and is surprised and disappointed in its decision to initiate this lawsuit at this time,” the City of Sterling Heights said in a statement.
According to the statement, the AICC’s land use request to build a mosque was denied by the Planning Commission “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.”
“The City welcomes the AICC along with any other religious groups, to Sterling Heights and we will continue an open dialog to address areas of disagreement with respect to land use,” the statement read.
City officials also defended the reputation of Sterling Heights as a city that welcomes and embraces diversity and inclusiveness, noting its diverse population represents ” a wide variety of cultures, ethnicities and race.”
“Sterling Heights has a solid reputation for inclusiveness and tolerance reflected in a wide variety of places of worship across the City, including two existing Mosques, a Sikh Temple, a Buddhist Temple, Christian churches of various denominations and a BAPS Shri
Swaminarayan Mandi,” the city said in a statement. ” Sterling Heights is a community that has and continues to welcome diversity through many programs and events.”
For example, Sterling Heights officials cited the city’s popular Cultural Exchange, an annual event where “thousands of residents gather every year to celebrate and share their heritage with one another through food, dancing, art displays and other activities.” They also noted that Sterling Heights was “the first City in Macomb County to join Welcoming Michigan, an organization representing new refugees and immigrants who have chosen Sterling Heights as their new home.”
“We continue to work closely with Welcoming Michigan to develop new programs tailored to inclusiveness as well as promoting education and understanding of the various cultures within our city,” the statement read.
The case is one of several that have come up in recent years across metro Detroit involving mosques facing stiff opposition from nearby residents. The Department of Justice filed a lawsuit last year against Pittsfield Township in Washtenaw County after it denied an Islamic school permission to be built. In recent years, there has been strong opposition to mosques being built in West Bloomfield, Plymouth, and Warren.
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