Muslims sue Michigan city over mosque denial

A crowd gathered in Sterling Heights, Michigan, cheers for the city planning commission's rejection of a mosque in September 2015. © SanVic
Leaders of an Islamic community center in Sterling Heights, Michigan have filed a federal lawsuit saying that city officials violated their constitutional rights by rejecting the building of a mosque. The Justice Department is investigating the claims.

Claiming bigotry against Muslims, the American Islamic Community Center (AICC) filed the federal lawsuit Wednesday in US District Court in Detroit, in response to a Sterling Heights planning commission meeting last September, during which members voted unanimously to block the building of a mosque.

In the lawsuit, AICC cited emails from top Sterling Heights officials that advocated asking the FBI to investigate the Shiite mosque's leaders for terror activity. One email from then-Police Chief Michael Reese asked a police captain to contact the FBI to see if any of the leaders were "on their radar."

The suit claimed that the constitutional rights of AICC members were violated.

"With a vociferous and racist member of the Planning Commission leading the charge, the Planning Commission voted to reject the site plan," the lawsuit said. "With no other choice, the American Islamic Community Center has filed this suit seeking equitable relief to build the Mosque and seeks damages as the City of Sterling Heights’ conduct violates, among other things, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ... and the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution."

The federal law is designed to shield religious institutions or individuals from discrimination in zoning law. AICC is asking for equitable relief to build the mosque, as well as damages for what they say are constitutional rights violations.

Meanwhile, the US Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan confirmed Wednesday that the "Department of Justice and US Attorney's Office have been conducting an independent investigation" that is ongoing, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Those opposed to the mosque have said the plans called for its construction in a residential area, and that zoning circumstances led to the proposal's demise. Sterling Heights spokeswoman Bridget Doyle said Wednesday afternoon that the city had not been served with the lawsuit.

"Until such time that the city has an opportunity to review the allegations being made and consult with legal counsel, city representatives will not be commenting on the lawsuit," Doyle said in a statement, according to the Detroit News.

Azzam Elder, the attorney who filed the suit on behalf of AICC, said the mosque rejection was rooted in anti-Muslim bigotry.

"We all know of a time in our history when sentiment in America were anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-German, anti-Japanese, or anti-Black, and those times have forever stained on our history," Elder said in a statement. "As defenders of the U.S. Constitution, we are confident that there will come a day when it will also be inconceivable to be anti-Muslim. This is why we filed this lawsuit, in order to continue the struggle of protecting the rights of all minority groups in America."

Elder added that the "the City of Sterling Heights and its political leadership has had nearly one year to make good on its wrong. They’ve failed to uphold the constitutional rights of its Muslim residents."

The organization's current facility can no longer handle the volume of people interested in attending, AICC member Khalil Abbass said.

"I feel that we got discriminated against because we are Muslim," he told the Detroit News. "We just want a bigger place in a nice community like Sterling Heights."

The lawsuit said that some AICC members have lived in Sterling Heights for decades.

"I am proud to have served in Desert Storm as a Senior Airman for the United States Air Force," Abbas said on Wednesday after a press conference at Sterling Heights City Hall, according to the Detroit Free Press. "My grandfather served in WWI and other family members served in other wars to protect the rights of all Americans. All I want is for the City of Sterling Heights to follow the US Constitution, and protect my rights as a veteran and citizen."

Sterling Heights Mayor Michael Taylor would not comment on the lawsuit to the Free Press, while City Planner Chris McLeod, current Police Chief John Berg, and former chief Reese did not respond to the paper's requests for comment.

Former city planner David Mende said last September that the mosque was designed to be too big and unruly for the 4.5-acre property. He urged the planning commission to reject the mosque despite a developer's offer to alter the size. Still, Mende said the dimensions would "far exceed the height of other structures" in the neighborhood, the Detroit News reported.

Taylor has said that he "completely and unequivocally denounce(s) any anti-Muslim bigotry" and that he would "work with the AICC to ensure they have a place to worship in our city." 

The city said in May that "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."