Justice Department assists with mosque expansion dispute

Rendering of Islamic Center of South Bay Mosque

By Kalia Abiade

A Southern California city that rejected a plan to build a new mosque in 2010 must now fast-track the application under a settlement with the Justice Department.

Members of the Islamic Center of South Bay requested to build a single, two-story building on land they own to replace eight existing, aging structures. With the help of the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Los Angeles branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Islamic center sued Lomita last year after the city council denied permission to proceed with construction. The lawsuit said the existing layout would leave the 1.5-acre property “resembling a refugee camp rather than a religious institution.”The Justice Department filed a brief in support of the mosque and later sued the city, saying the council violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act(RLUIPA). RLUIPA is the same law at the center of the ongoing mosque-construction debate in Murfreesboro, TN.

“Religious freedom is among our most fundamental rights, and there are few aspects of that right more basic than the ability of a religious community to come together for worship and fellowship in a decent and appropriate setting on its own property,” Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Thomas Perez, said in a statement. “With RLUIPA, Congress has sought to ensure that this basic right is protected from encroachment by unjustified local zoning actions.”

As with this case, it is common for opponents of mosque construction to cite mundane technical issues as the basis for their criticism. Members of the Islamic center said there were hints of anti-Muslim sentiment from the residents who spoke out against the plan, but Lomita City Council members downplayed accusations of discrimination.

However, some sociologists and psychologists argue that, because discourse about race and discrimination is often highly charged and emotional, bigotry is often clouded in semantics and “color-blind racism.” People may not say overtly bigoted statements, or even harbor overtly bigoted thoughts, but they can still speak and act in ways that perpetuate intolerance and discrimination. In other words, according to sociologist Eduardo Bonilla Silva, “many have learned to enunciate positions that safeguard their racial interests without sounding ‘racist’.”

These “common sense” arguments comprise exactly the kind of rhetoric that known nativists deploy to advance their discriminatory ideals. In an address last month to the Maryland Conservative Action Network, Pamela Geller urged audience members to use all available tactics to fight mosque construction.

“There are places that these monster mosques are going up on these quiet residential streets,” she said. “And the way to play it, the way to play those fights is parking, sewage, city zoning. That’s how you play those fights. You pursue every avenue.”

Geller added, “You’re in a war. You’re in a war and the battlefield is unfair. Freedom’s been under attack for a long time.”

On many of these so-called battlefields, Geller’s imprint may not be immediately recognizable, and, indeed, she may not be directly involved. However, she admits, “Some fights, I’m behind the scenes. Nobody knows I’m there because that’s the way to play it.”

At least six other mosque-construction debates are taking place across the country, including in Norwalk, CT, Alpharetta, GA, and Basking Ridge, NJ. As in the Lomita case, many of the public arguments against new constructions hinge on traffic and parking concerns, yet lawyers and proponents of the mosque say anti-Muslim sentiment is guiding the criticism.

In their 2010 decision, Lomita City Council members cited residents’ concerns about increased traffic and parking. This was despite a study that showed the new layout would actually improve traffic flow.

“The idea was not to attract more people,” said Iraj Ershaghi, a founding member of the center. “The idea was to have classrooms. We don’t have classrooms; we don’t have bathrooms. The idea was to make it convenient to park in the lot and not in the street.”

According to the lawsuits, as many as 200 congregants attend Friday prayers, and during the week members must walk from building to building to worship, attend classes, and use the restroom. The Justice Department asserts that this layout makes it too burdensome for members to exercise their religion.

The settlement must be approved by the U.S, District Court in Los Angeles. It also requires city officials to be trained on RLUIPA applications.

Members of the Islamic center began purchasing the land and buildings in the mid-1980s and said the city’s action sent the message that they were not welcome in the community despite their lengthy presence there.

“The tone was that, ‘You don’t even exist,’ ” Ershaghi said in 2010 just after the city rejected the proposal.

Ershaghi notes that he hopes this settlement helps other Muslim communities facing similar battles.  “We believe this has historical significance as it will affect every other application by local communities nationally who wish to build a mosque.”