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The U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Sterling Heights on Thursday that alleges the city violated a federal land use law when it rejected a proposal from the American Islamic Community Center in 2015 to build a mosque.

In a 20-page complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C., and Detroit allege that Sterling Heights discriminated against the center on the basis of religion and placed a substantial burden on the community’s ability to exercise its religion by denying approval to build a mosque.

“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,” said Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant attorney general and head of the civil rights division.

The justice department 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.

U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said the law prohibits the government from discriminating on the basis of religion or imposing a substantial burden on the exercise of religion when making land use decisions.

“We filed this lawsuit to protect the rights of all of our citizens to freely practice their religion and have a place to gather with members of their community,” McQuade said.

City officials have denied accusations they discriminated against Muslims when officials rejected the proposal.

On Thursday, Sterling Heights released a statement, saying: “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 maintains that the AICC application for special approval land use to construct a mosque was considered and denied by the city’s 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 statement read.

“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.”

In August, the center filed a federal civil lawsuit against Sterling Heights, alleging it violated several federal laws when it denied the center a permit to build the mosque.

Attorney Azzam Elder has said 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 earlier lawsuit.

In May 2014, the center entered into an agreement to purchase the property on land within a zoning district that allows houses of worship, according to both lawsuits. 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 original complaint says.

Members of the public spoke during a public comment period. Fifty people spoke against the application; seven spoke in favor, according to the government lawsuit.

“Many of the comments were directed at the religion of the petitioner, including a plea to ‘Remember 9/11,’ statements that Christians would not be allowed to build a church in Iraq, and statements that property values would drop if a mosque were built in the neighborhood,” the lawsuit said.

According to the justice department complaint filed on Thursday, federal prosecutors said during the time the mosque was under consideration, council members and the mayor were running for re-election and the application became a key election issue.

Some Chaldean business owners refused to support Mayor Michael Taylor’s campaign because of a perception that Taylor supported the proposed mosque, the lawsuit says. In response, on Aug. 28, 2015, Taylor posted the following message on Facebook:

“Let me set the record straight. I am the Mayor of Sterling Heights. I am opposed to this mosque being built on 15 Mile Road. It is sad that my political opponents are lying to you and trying to scare you into thinking I am insensitive to the Chaldean people throughout the world.

“My heart breaks for the Christians in Iraq and throughout the world who are being terrorized by Islamic terrorists. I will do EVERYTHING in my power to protect, support and defend the Chaldean population in Sterling Heights. I have nothing to do with this mosque and do not want it built there.”

According to the lawsuit, commissioner Jeffrey Norgrove posted the following on Facebook in August 2015: “Oh no the terrorists are gonna attack, according to the media this weekend. Come to the Detroit area. They dont [sic] bomb their revenue source.”

Taylor and Norgrove could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The Detroit News reported in September 2015 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.

The decision 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.

Members of the American Islamic Community Center say they were looking to build a larger facility because the mosque had outgrown its building on Dequindre in Madison Heights. Most of the mosque’s members live in Sterling Heights.

On Thursday, Elder said the justice department came to the same conclusion he did when he investigated the mosque’s denial.

“That city officials and politicians clearly discriminated against their own citizens,” Elder said.

His clients “absolutely” still want to build the mosque.

“Their families have grown. They want a nicer place to take their kids to and practice freely and building something that looks pretty and they can be proud of,” he said.

JChambers@detroitnews.com

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