Sterling Heights — Metro Detroit Muslims "used the Constitution as a shield" by settling two lawsuits with Sterling Heights to pave way for a mosque that once pitted the city against the developers of the house of worship, attorneys said Wednesday.
"We had to file a lawsuit because the law was not followed. (Our members) are very relieved today," said Azzam Elder, an attorney for the American Islamic Community Center, which sought to construct a 20,500-square-foot facility near 15 Mile and Mound. The city's planning commission denied a special approval land use application in September 2015.
"They’re very relieved because Sterling Heights finally realized who they are: They’re veterans … they’re professionals, they’re everyday Americans," Elder said. "Our Constitution prevailed against the test of time."
The settlements resolve issues about parking, traffic congestion and the size of the mosque’s dome and spires.
The American Islamic Community Center filed a federal lawsuit nearly a year after the city rejected their plans, citing parking, traffic congestion and the size of the mosque’s dome and spires. The Department of Justice filed a second lawsuit, alleging the city violated a federal land-use law in denying a permit to build the mosque.
The suits cited the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which protects individuals, houses of worship and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning and land-marking law. The American Islamic Community Center’s lawsuit also noted a “hostile” planning commission and public.
U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade praised the settlements Wednesday morning.
"I grew up in Sterling Heights and I am very proud to announce this settlement," McQuade said of the DOJ lawsuit. "Inclusion cannot mean that some groups are welcome and others are not."
Construction on the mosque site could begin as early as summer.
McQuade said her suit targeted what lawyers called "unnecessary burdens" placed on plans to build the mosque. The proposal was denied in September 2015 in-part because of concerns about parking and the height of the building's spires, originally meant to be 66 feet tall.
The site's planned 130-spot parking lot would have been more than large enough to accommodate the expected crowd, McQuade said. And the 66-foot spires would have been far shorter than the 151-foot steeple at nearby St. Blase Parish.
"We found (the concerns) not so reasonable," McQuade said. "It’s important to remember in our pluralistic society that religious minorities are entitled to the same rights. Religious intolerance has no place in America. We need to get over this irrational fear when we see people as the 'other.'"
The proposed mosque now is set to have plans for overflow parking exceeding the 130 on-site spaces and won’t use outdoor sound projection for a call to prayer. Additionally, the spires now will stand at 61 feet tall, according to McQuade.
A final site plan still requires court approval.
The settlement for the American Islamic Community Center's lawsuit involves a $350,000 payment by Sterling Heights toward the city's insurance deductible, McQuade said. Attorneys declined to discuss any further payment, citing confidentiality.
The DOJ settlement does not involve monetary payments, McQuade said.
McQuade noted that as part of the settlements, the city of Sterling Heights admitted no wrongdoing but will allow the mosque to be built and will participate in training programs for employees involved in reviewing building applications.
The Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations on Wednesday welcomed the settlement.
"We hope that this settlement, along with last year's settlement in Pittsfield Township regarding a previously blocked Islamic school project, sends a strong message to city governments in Michigan seeking to deny zoning of religious institutions simply because they are led by Muslims," said CAIR-MI Executive Director Dawud Walid.
McQuade mentioned the Pittsfield case at her press conference Wednesday.
"I think these cases demonstrate the power of the law to right wrongs … and protect the rights of the most vulnerable members of our community," she said.
Sterling Heights City Council voted to settle the lawsuits Tuesday evening, over strenuous objections from more than 180 residents who briefly halted the meeting.
Lawyers at McQuade's press conference Wednesday lamented the objections, which they tied to discrimination.
"There is no greater wealth than tolerance and there is no greater poverty than ignorance," attorney Mohammed Abdrabboh said. "A lot of poverty exists in Sterling Heights."
Nearly 70 percent of the 300 members of the American Islamic Community Center live in Sterling Heights, according to an attorney. McQuade shot down any suggestion that the group should have heeded resistance and picked another community for their mosque.
"Why not leave? Because America says you get to be where you want to be," she said. "If you own land, you don’t have to leave because your neighbors don’t want you there."
Part of the DOJ's settlement requires the court to maintain oversight on the mosque's development, to ensure all parties are adhering to the agreements.
"Moving forward, we’re very concerned about some of what you’ve seen at the public hearings with some of the residents," Elder said. "We'll be monitoring what we feel (could be) potential hate groups."
Council members Tuesday evening stressed that the settlements keep Sterling Heights out of costly litigation and will allow officials more say in the mosque’s layout.
“We have reduced our financial risk and we’ve been able to have input on what the actual development is going to contain,” Councilman Doug Skrzyniarz told the audience.
Anne McClorey McLaughlin, the insurance counsel representing Sterling Heights, said although the city had “valid legal defenses to many of the claims” in the lawsuit, more litigation “would come at a great financial cost.” Moreover, the lawyer told the council: “Most likely a judge would be dictating the terms of the mosque and you wouldn’t have any say.”
The 2015 planning commission rejection followed controversy between civil rights activists and residents concerned about traffic congestion, lowered property values and the mosque’s suitability in the neighborhood. Some critics believed the complaints masked an anti-Muslim bias.
But many of the residents who packed the City Council chambers to capacity vociferously rejected the settlements — citing the original concerns about traffic and whether the mosque is in the right spot.
“We have no problem with other mosques in our area,” Jackie Ryan said before the vote. “This has to do with certain conditions.”
Others believed the settlement gave the city better standing in pursuing alterations.
“It’s better to get it passed now,” said Jerry Sieja, who has lived in the city for more than 50 years. “I’d rather have our council and commission decide on the property.”
Several who spoke questioned the terms and doubted the lawsuits’ claim about violating the Religious Land Use Act. “It’s not about discrimination,” Dr. Steve Naumovski said.
At times the debate became so contentious, attendees interrupted and prompted Mayor Michael Taylor to have police escort a handful out. He also warned the entire auditorium would be cleared for the vote on the consent order if outbursts continued.
Shortly before the vote, Taylor told the audience that the American Islamic Community Center was legally allowed to amend the proposal with city approval.
When he said the plans no longer presented significant concerns about traffic, scores of meeting-goers erupted with shouts drowning out Taylor — spurring him to clear the hall as a woman shouted “Shame on you!”
“To allow the AICC to have a place to worship is the American thing to do,” Taylor said after the vote.
In a later statement, the mayor said the proposed mosque would add “to the wide variety of places of worship across the City, including numerous churches, two other previously existing Mosques, a Sikh Temple, a Buddhist Temple and a BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir.”
Fatina Abdrabboh, executive director of the newly formed American-Muslim & Minority Advocacy League, hailed the decision as “a victory for pluralism, equality, and basic human decency. The members of AMAL and our wider base hope that residents of Sterling Heights, other municipalities and citizens alike nationwide come to realize, you can’t secure your own rights by denying the same rights to others. By definition, that’s hypocritical and unjust. This settlement indicates that there remains the will and law to fight against hatred often endured by our community.”