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Washington — The Justice Department filed a lawsuit Monday against a Washentaw County township for failing to approve a zoning request for an Islamic school.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit by the government’s Civil Rights Division, accuses Pittsfield Township of violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act “when it denied zoning approval to allow the Michigan Islamic Academy to build a school on a vacant parcel of land located in the township.”

The complaint says the township imposed a substantial burden on the Muslim Community Association of Ann Arbor’s exercise of religion when it refused to grant its request for rezoning to allow the association to build the school. The group runs a school in Ann Arbor and sought to build in Pittsfield Township “because it requires additional space for religious and secular educational purposes.”

“Religious freedom is a cornerstone of our society, and that freedom includes being able to create the institutions and physical spaces needed for worship, religious education and other aspects of religious exercise,” said Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant attorney general, who is head of the Civil Rights Division.

“The Justice Department is committed to ensuring that all religious groups enjoy the right to practice their faiths freely, and will continue to challenge local land use decisions that substantially burden religious exercise.”

A township lawyer didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment.

The Muslim Community Association sued Pittsfield Township in 2012, but a federal judge in Detroit dismissed the suit in March. The association has asked a judge to reopened the suit.

The township’s Planning Commission held a meeting in June 2011 with people nearly evenly divided over approving the project. At a second meeting in August 2011 that lasted until 1:30 a.m., the Planning Commission voted to recommend denying approval, citing traffic, noise and light generated from outdoor activities. The Justice Department suit said the findings “were without factual basis and contradicted by the township’s consultant.”

After criticism from some in the community, the Muslim Community Association in 2011 amended its proposal to drop plans for a community center and prayer hall. The township board voted in October 2011 without debate unanimously to endorse the commission’s recommendation. One member of both boards said the center could resubmit plans for a prayer hall and community center after a school was built.

The Ann Arbor school serves 190 students in prekindergarten through 12th grade. The school operates out of a building that it shares with the association community center and mosque on a 2.7 acre property in Ann Arbor.

The school doesn’t have room “for a cafeteria, computer or science labs, private space for guidance counseling, a gymnasium, locker rooms, auditorium, library, kitchen, or adequate administrative office space” — and has congested classrooms, the Justice Department said.

“To compensate for a lack of space in the main shared building, (Michigan Islamic Academy) utilized trailers to provide four additional classrooms, but the trailers had a recurring mold infestation problem and no reliable heat.”

The government said local governments can’t impose regulations unfairly.

“The law prohibits the government from imposing land use regulations that substantially burden religious exercise unless there is a compelling government interest and uses the least restrictive means of doing so,” said U.S. Attorney Barbara L. McQuade, the top federal prosecutor in eastern Michigan.

“This complaint alleges that Pittsfield Township denied the Michigan Islamic Academy's request to build a school in violation of that law. We filed this lawsuit to protect the right of all Americans to practice their religion and receive the religious instruction and education of their choice.”

The law, enacted in 2000 by Congress, prohibits religious discrimination and protecting against unjustified burdens on religious exercise.

DShepardson@detroitnews.com

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