Lawsuit filed over denial of mosque in Sterling Heights

Jennifer Chambers, and Nicquel Terry

The American Islamic Community Center has filed a federal civil lawsuit against Sterling Heights alleging it violated several federal laws when it denied the center a permit to build a mosque there.

Attorney Azzam Elder of Elder Brinkman Law speaks, Wednesday Aug. 10, 2016, during a press conference to announce a lawsuit agains the city of Sterling Heights alleging it violated several federal laws when it denied a permit to build a mosque there.

That lawsuit comes as federal officials confirmed Wednesday the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Attorney's Office are conducting an independent investigation into the matter.

“And that investigation is ongoing," U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said.

Attorney Azzam Elder filed the suit Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Detroit on behalf of the organization, alleging the site plan submitted by the center in 2015 met all of the requirements to build a mosque on 15 Mile between Ryan and Mound, but the proposal went to a public hearing before a “hostile” planning commission and public, according to the lawsuit.

Khalil Abbass, of Troy holds an artist rendering of the proposed Sterling Heights Mosque.

“With a vociferous and racist member of the planning commission leading the charge, the planning commission voted to reject the site plan,” Elder wrote in the lawsuit. “With no other choice, the American Islamic Community Center has filed this suit seeking equitable relief to build the Mosque and seeks damages as the City of Sterling Heights’ conduct violates, among other things, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.”

That federal law protect individuals, houses of worship and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning and land-marking law.

In the lawsuit, the center is asking for equitable relief to build the mosque and for damages against the city for its alleged discriminatory conduct that violated the 1st and 14th amendments.

Sterling Heights spokeswoman Bridget Doyle said Wednesday afternoon that the city had not been served with the federal lawsuit.

“Until such time that the city has an opportunity to review the allegations being made and consult with legal counsel, city representatives will not be commenting on the lawsuit,” Doyle said in a statement.

Elder is also asking the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene as a result of evidence he and other attorneys discovered during a 10 month investigation into the city, after it denied the center a permit to build a mosque in September.

“We all know of a time in our history when sentiments in America were anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-German, anti-Japanese or anti-Black, and those times have forever stained on our history. In fact today, we still suffer from remnants of the damage caused,” Elder said in a statement Wednesday.

“As defenders of the U.S. Constitution, we are confident that there will come a day when it will also be inconceivable to be anti-Muslim. This is why we filed this lawsuit, in order to continue the struggle of protecting the rights of all minority groups in America.”

Khalil Abbass, a member of American Islamic Community Center, said Wednesday the mosque wanted to build a larger facility because it had outgrown its existing building on Dequindre Road in Madison Heights.

The majority of its members also live in Sterling Heights, Abbass said.

“I feel that we got discriminated against because we are Muslim,” Abbass said after a press conference Wednesday at Sterling Heights City Hall led by attorneys and mosque members. “We just want a bigger place in a nice community like Sterling Heights.”

Andy Cheh, also member of the mosque, added the Muslim community wants to be treated fairly by the city.

“Our objective is to stay quiet and build a religious center for our children,” Cheh said. “We just want a center that everyone can enjoy.”

In May 2014, the center entered into an agreement to purchase property on 15 Mile to build a mosque on land within a zoning district that allows houses of worship, according to the lawsuit. The site plan met all of the requirements and then City Planning Chief Don Mende documented that all requirements were met and recommended approval, the complaint says.

Elder said evidence will show at public hearings, Muslim residents, including senior citizens and teenagers, were threatened, assaulted, spit on and dehumanized.

Elder said Muslim residents reported these incidents to police but nothing was done.

“This has been a lot of stress on the community,” Elder said. “Their kids go to school here, some of them have had to deal with bullying and this is why it’s important to file this lawsuit because government officials have a responsibility to protect all citizens.”

The case was assigned to U.S. District Judge Gershwin Drain.

The News reported in September the city’s planning commission unanimously denied the request to build a mosque after an official said it would not fit in with surrounding properties.

At the time, Mende, the former city planner, said the 20,500-square-foot mosque on 4 1/2 acres of largely undeveloped property was too tall, too large and not harmonious with neighboring properties.

Mende urged rejection of the mosque despite the developer’s offer to reduce the height of twin spires by 9 feet. The towers still would be 27 feet taller than the maximum allowed by the city. And a 65-foot dome would “far exceed the height of other structures” nearby, Mende said.

“The scale and height are not harmonious with existing buildings,” Mende told commissioners then, adding he was concerned the proposed mosque lacked enough parking.

The vote followed a months-long controversy that exposed a rift between civil rights activists and residents concerned about traffic congestion, lowered property values and the appropriateness of a mosque in a neighborhood. Some area Muslims said the complaints masked an anti-Muslim bias.

In May, Mayor Michael C. Taylor told The News the reasons for denial were put on the record in September at a public meeting and he had no further comment.

But in a statement given in May, the city noted “the recent application for the special approval land use to construct a mosque was considered by the City’s Planning Commission based on objective land use criteria and not emotional feelings tied to religious beliefs either for or against the applicant.

“Sterling Heights will continue to foster faith-based inclusiveness and understanding with local partners including our city’s school districts, religious organizations and other community groups.”