Court sides with Sterling Hts. in appeal of mosque challenge

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

Detroit — Sterling Heights residents' rights were not violated when officials cleared the City Council's chambers during a meeting to discuss a mosque's construction, according to a federal appeals court decision.

In the opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, a three-judge panel unanimously ruled in favor of the city.

Sterling Heights officials Thursday welcomed the court's decision.

“We are obviously pleased with the unanimous decision of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upholding the lower court’s prior dismissal of this case," Mayor Michael Taylor said in a statement. "The Opinion confirms the District Court’s prior ruling that the City acted appropriately on all accounts.”

Robert Muise, who argued the case on behalf of the residents who filed the appeal, said the court's ruling was disappointing. Muise is an attorney and co-founder of the American Freedom Law Center, a Judeo-Christian, public interest law firm based in Ann Arbor.

"We think it's terribly wrong," he said. "We intend to file a petition to request the full appeals court take up the issue. We think it's too important to just let it end here."

Muise said if that request is denied, then the plaintiffs intend to ask the matter to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

"This fight is not over," he said.

Last year, a group of six Sterling Heights residents appealed a U.S. District Court decision to deny its challenge of a 2017 consent agreement between the city and the American Islamic Community Center that allowed it to build a mosque near 15 Mile and Mound.

The city and the Muslim group entered into the agreement after the religious organization sued when Sterling Heights' Planning Commission in September 2015 denied its application for special land use for the mosque.

The City Council voted Feb. 21, 2017, to ratify the agreement. But during the meeting's public comment period, more than two dozen outbursts in the audience prompted Taylor to clear the chamber of all spectators, except the media, to enable the council to deliberate.

Debbie Rosi (center), organizer and owner of home in background, leads the protest of the construction of a mosque on 15 Mile Road in Sterling Heights, Michigan August 29, 2015.

Six residents who were among the more than 180 people at the meeting filed the lawsuit, claiming Taylor and the city violated their First Amendment right to free speech and Fourth Amendment right to due process because one of them was removed from the meeting.

"Some people voice concerns about issues such as traffic and noise; others disparaged Islam and the AICC, calling them terrorists or terrorist-funded," according to the appeals court decision. "Whenever someone made an irrelevant comment, Mayor Taylor called that speaker out of order."

It also said "a city council meeting is not a 'traditional public forum like parks and streets, the sort of setting in which the government's regulatory powers are at their weakest.'"

The woman ejected from the meeting claimed she was seized by police and didn't feel free to leave, according to the ruling. But it also said she "lost her privilege to remain in the public meeting because of her behavior. There was certainly no painful force, and (her) freedom was unrestricted once she exited the building."

Twitter: @CharlesERamirez