Islamic school settling with Pittsfield Twp. for $1.7M

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

An Islamic academy in Ann Arbor has reached a $1.7 million tentative settlement with Pittsfield Township for denying it the right to build a school on its property, according to the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

The Muslim Community Association sued the township in 2012, claiming it violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act when township officials refused to allow the Michigan Islamic Academy to build a school on vacant township property it owned.

The act protects individuals, houses of worship and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning and landmarking laws.

CAIR-MI said the settlement, one of the largest since the act was enacted, grants the academy the right to build a 70,000-square-foot Islamic school, a residential development consisting of 22 duplex units and three single-family homes and a park.

The settlement needs court approval.

“We welcome the settlement with Pittsfield Township and hope the outcome of this case will serve as a deterrent to other municipalities throughout the country seeking to deny Muslim institutions the right to build or expand their facilities on the basis of religion,” said Lena Masri, CAIR-MI’s legal director.

“In a year when so much has gone wrong for the Muslim community, this settlement is an example of the good things that can happen when Muslim communities stand up for their rights,” said Gadeir Abbas, who served as co-counsel on the case.

The U.S. Justice Department also filed a lawsuit against the township on behalf of the academy in October 2015 and announced Thursday it also tentatively settled its case with the township.

As part of the government settlement, which must still be approved by the U.S. District Court in Detroit, the township has agreed to permit the academy to construct a school, to treat the school and all other religious groups equally and to publicize its nondiscrimination policies and practices, federal officials said.

The township also agreed that its leaders and various township employees will attend training on the requirements of act. In addition, the county will report periodically to the Justice Department.

“Federal law protects the religious beliefs, freedoms and practices of all communities, including the right to build religious institutions free from unlawful and unfair barriers,” said Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

“This agreement will allow the Michigan Islamic Academy to build the facility it needs to serve its members and contribute to the community of Pittsfield.”

U.S. Attorney Barbara L. McQuade said the law prohibits the government from imposing land-use regulations that substantially burden religious exercise unless there is a compelling government interest and the government uses the least restrictive means of achieving that interest.

“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. This settlement will permit the families of the Michigan Islamic Academy to exercise the same rights as all Americans,” McQuade said.

“The township and the board of trustees emphatically deny any wrongdoing, discrimination or violation of law,” said township Supervisor Mandy Grewal. “This settlement ends litigation that began almost five years ago and protects existing homeowners in the area by requiring residential development with significant landscape buffering, to be installed first, between adjacent residential lots.

“The original proposal that was rejected by the township called for high-volume, multiuse facilities with little to no buffering. The township’s position from the beginning was and continues to be about protecting existing residents in this region from land uses that were not originally envisioned when they purchased their homes.”