Feds target religious bias in zoning fights

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Federal officials are cracking down on local communities that use zoning laws to discriminate against religious groups, particularly Muslims.

Sterling Heights is among Metro area communities that have struggled with controversies over requests for religious buildings.

The most recent eight lawsuits filed by the U.S. Department of Justice alleging violations of federal religious land use law have involved either a mosque or an Islamic school, including one local case in Washtenaw County’s Pittsfield Township.

The law — Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act — sets a high bar for any government action that would impose zoning or other restrictions on a religious institution. The law requires any such action must serve a “compelling government interest” while also being “the least restrictive means” of furthering that interest.

U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade and the justice department filed a lawsuit against Pittsfield Township in October for failing to approve a zoning request for an Islamic school and accused the township of violating the religious land use act.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit by the government’s Civil Rights Division, accuses the township of violating the law when it denied zoning approval to allow the Michigan Islamic Academy to build a school on a vacant parcel of land.

The complaint alleges 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,” according to the lawsuit against the township.

The Muslim Community Association also sued Pittsfield Township in 2012 on the school’s behalf, alleging violations of the law and seeking a court order that prevents the township from putting limits on the school’s use of the land.

Washington, D.C., attorney Gadeir I. Abbas, who represents the Muslim Community Association of Ann Arbor, said he was unable to discuss the case because of ongoing settlement talks between the parties.

Attorney Thomas R. Meagher, who represents Pittsfield Township in both lawsuits, said the association wants to build a school in an area zoned residential. After a lot of work by both the township and the association, both parties reached the conclusion that it was not an appropriate use of the land, he said.

“Their claim is the township violated (the law) by denying their rezoning,” Meagher said. “The township disagrees. The statute is fairly new and there is not a lot of information on how it’s to be applied. We made a decision that had nothing to do with their religious beliefs.”

The case against the township by the Justice Department is also in settlement negotiations, Meagher said.

“Their belief is the plaintiffs have it right and there was a violation of (the law). They want the township to take certain steps to avoid violations in the future,” he said.

Meagher was critical of the federal law, which some have said amounts to government overreach.

“It is a new, very difficult, largely untested federal statute. All that says litigation,” Meagher said.

McQuade recently met with Eric W. Treene, special counsel for religious discrimination in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and more than two dozen religious, community and legal leaders to talk about the law.

When it comes to religious land use, the law has extra protections for people of all religions and faiths, McQuade said.

And before the government can tell a person what to do with land, as in whether a structure can be built, McQuade said there has to be significant government interest and it has to be enforced in a way that is narrowly tailored.

“For example, if you deny a religious group the ability to build a mosque on their land, you can do it if you have a compelling governmental reason. But you can’t do it just because you don’t want Muslims in your neighborhood,” she said.

In the United States, Christian groups represented nearly 60 percent of case investigations by the Justice Department in the decade after Congress passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act in 2000.

Muslim organizations represented 14 percent of such lawsuits, from 2000-10, which alleged violations of the law created to address religious discrimination and government infringement of religious liberty in land use issues.

But from 2010 to the present, those figures dramatically changed: Christian groups represent about 44 percent of DOJ cases, while Muslims are now 40 percent of that group.

Treene said an increasing number of minority faiths are discriminated against in land use decisions. He spoke earlier this month at a roundtable of religious and legal leaders in Detroit.

“So it really is bearing out what Congress was looking at when they passed RLUIPA,” Treene said, using an acronym for the law. “Yes, this is a problem that affects everybody, Christians, Jews, Hindus. Yet often minorities are disproportionally affected, and if there is a disfavored minority — really that has turned to be Muslims in recent years — that is where we see the most stark numbers.”

Pittsfield Township isn’t alone. Other communities have struggled with controversies over requests for religious buildings.

Annamarie Zatine helped fight a proposed mosque on 15 Mile last year. Sterling Heights rejected the bid, saying it didn’t fit the surroundings.

In September, the Sterling Heights planning commissioners unanimously denied a request to build a mosque after an official said it would not fit in with surrounding properties.

Former Sterling Heights City Planner Don Mende said at the time 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.

Mayor Michael C. Taylor said Tuesday 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 Tuesday, the city said, “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.”

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.

McQuade’s office said it is aware of the case, but no formal complaint has been filed in the matter.

“I find so often in civil rights cases that decisions are made not because the decision maker is biased, but because the decision-maker is uninformed about the law,” McQuade said.

“If we can be that bridge that provides that information, often time, the decision maker wants to comply with the law they just aren’t aware of it.”


Federal investigations

Investigations by religion 2000-10:

15 cases: Christians, predominately minority

14 cases: Christians, predominately white

2 cases: Christians, ethnically diverse

7 cases: Muslims

6 cases: Jewish

3 cases: Buddhist

2 cases: Multiple faiths

1 case: Unitarian

1 case: Hindu

Source: U.S. Department of Justice