Michigan city to allow mosque, settle lawsuits alleging bias

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By David Ingram

<span class="articleLocation”>The Sterling Heights City Council in eastern
Michigan has approved a stalled proposal to build a mosque, a
necessary step to settle discrimination lawsuits from Muslim
residents and the U.S. Department of Justice.

The council’s unanimous vote late on Tuesday followed a
raucous meeting where opponents were especially vocal. Mayor
Mike Taylor said on Wednesday that one mosque opponent accused
council members of working with “terrorists.”

Mosque opponents in Michigan and elsewhere had sought help
from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and President Donald Trump,
who during last year’s campaign tapped into fears about Islamic
State militants and called for a ban on Muslims entering the
United States. Religious liberty lawyers had feared Trump might
reverse Obama administration positions protecting the rights of
Muslim worshipers.

But the Justice Department on Wednesday released a statement
commending the approval of the mosque.

“Federal law protects the right of faith communities to
build places of worship without discrimination or unreasonable
burdens on their religious exercise,” said acting Assistant
Attorney General Tom Wheeler, a Trump appointee overseeing the
Civil Rights Division.

Under former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush,
Justice Department lawyers sued several cities and towns that
denied applications to build mosques, saying officials
discriminated against Muslims.

The American Islamic Community Center, a Michigan nonprofit,
applied in 2015 to build the third mosque in Sterling Heights, a
city of some 132,000 people about 23 miles north (37 km) of
Detroit.

The following month, some 50 people spoke against the plan
at a hearing, with at least one resident telling city officials
to “Remember 9/11,” according the lawsuit the Justice Department
later filed in December 2016.

Papers would likely be filed in Michigan federal court as
soon as Wednesday to settle both the Justice Department lawsuit
and a separate one filed last year by the community center, said
Daniel Dalton, a lawyer for the center.

“The law did what it was supposed to do, which was to
protect all religious entities with equal force,” Dalton said in
a phone interview.

The 20,000-square-foot mosque is expected to be built
largely as proposed, but with a lower height and a plan to
accommodate neighbors’ concerns about parking.

Sterling Heights has gotten a “black eye” from the fight,
but the Muslim community’s persistence shows that it wants to be
part of the city, the mayor said.

“They’re part of the fabric of our community, and they have
rights as Americans, as human beings, to worship in the city
they live in,” Taylor said in a phone interview.

The Justice Department has active lawsuits favoring
proposals to build mosques in other states including Illinois,
New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia.



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