Residents sue city, mayor after mosque settlement meeting

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published March 17, 2017

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A group of Sterling Heights residents are challenging the City Council’s decision to end recent legal disputes and thereby clear the way for the construction of an estimated 60-foot-tall mosque in a residential neighborhood.

On March 13, a new lawsuit that lists seven Sterling Heights residents as plaintiffs was filed in federal court against the city of Sterling Heights and Mayor Michael Taylor. The lawsuit was produced with the help of the American Freedom Law Center, which is described by its founders on its website as “the nation’s first truly authentic Judeo-Christian public interest law firm.”

The new lawsuit comes after the Sterling Heights City Council voted unanimously Feb. 21 to settle two federal lawsuits: one from the Madison Heights-based American Islamic Community Center and one from the U.S. Department of Justice. The two lawsuits accused the city of violating the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, as well as discriminating against Muslims.

Those accusations arose from the Sterling Heights Planning Commission’s 2015 rejection of the AICC’s special approval land use request to build a mosque on 15 Mile Road, between Hatherly Place and Davison Drive, in Sterling Heights.

According to the lawsuit, the Sterling Heights City Council’s recent settlements effectively reverse the Planning Commission’s 2015 decision. An attorney for the city said the settlements make no admission that the city violated the law or discriminated.

The residents’ new lawsuit ultimately wants a judge to invalidate the city’s consent judgment with the AICC. It also asks for the plaintiffs to be awarded nominal damages, compensation for legal costs or other relief that the court may deem acceptable.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Robert Muise, said he has seen cases around the country where Islamic organizations propose building a mosque with plans that are “woefully inadequate, almost enticing the community to deny it.” According to Muise, when the proposal is rejected, the religious group follows up with a lawsuit and the backing of the Department of Justice.

“The Department of Justice is the 800-pound gorilla, and the city caved,” Muise said. “The city had absolutely valid defenses against that lawsuit. The zoning laws are enacted for the benefit of the public. This consent judgment just undermines them, to the detriment of the people in that neighborhood.”

The new lawsuit says that some of the residents bringing the suit are from the area in which the proposed mosque would stand, and some of them identify as Chaldean or Assyrian Christians. One of the plaintiffs, Jeffrey Norgrove, is a member of the Planning Commission.

The lawsuit calls the consent judgment  “woefully vague and inadequate” as well as unenforceable. It asserts that the City Council’s settlement violates its own zoning ordinance and the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act.

The suit goes on to make arguments on why the mosque allegedly violates the city’s zoning principles on matters such as the proposed building’s height, parking issues and conformity — or lack thereof — to the neighborhood.

For instance, the mosque’s R-60 residential zone normally restricts buildings to 30 feet, with exceptions made for buildings with appropriate setback distances. The lawsuit says the proposed mosque’s dome would be 58 1/2 feet high, and the spires would be 61 1/2 feet high.

Sterling Heights City Planner Chris McLeod previously said that, under the settlement, the parties agreed that the mosque’s dome would be around 53 feet 4 inches tall, while the spires would be around 60 feet high, including ornamentation.

In addition, the lawsuit accuses Sterling Heights of violating the constitutional rights of audience members at the Feb. 21 City Council meeting — particularly those who opposed the mosque lawsuit settlements.

During that meeting, audience members often applauded, interrupted with comments or grumbled. Disruptions caused Taylor to frequently admonish the audience and demand that people who didn’t follow his instructions leave the chambers. At one point after public comment ended, the mayor responded to an audience outcry by ejecting the entire audience from the room prior to the council’s vote.

Regular City Council rules for public communication ban speakers from doing things like disrupting the meeting, making personal attacks on people or institutions, or failing to speak germanely on city business.

The residents’ lawsuit accuses the city of not providing “proper notice and an opportunity to be heard.” It also argues that the city and the mayor restricted residents’ public speech based on content and viewpoint and partook in activities to chill speech — even when commentary was germane.

The lawsuit faults the mayor for imposing an “ad hoc” two-minute time limit on speakers. In 2014, the City Council created an option to reduce speaking times from seven minutes to three minutes in cases when many speakers wanted to talk.

The legal papers also fault the mayor for not letting residents make comments about religion or for declaring views that alluded to or were critical of Islam. The city is also accused of violating the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by creating a “primary effect of endorsing, promoting or approving Islam.”

In addition, the plaintiffs condemn the mayor for summoning police officers to forcefully eject audience members from the meeting, which the suit attributes to audience members holding contrary views. Allegations of the city violating the Michigan Open Meetings Act were also asserted in the litigation.

“As it turns out, the city’s decision to enter into the consent judgment was a fait accompli, and the City Council meeting was merely a sham,” the suit said.

Sterling Heights released an official statement dated March 15 that confirmed that officials had received the new lawsuit.

“The city believes the claims raised in the lawsuit are entirely without merit and stands behind the consent judgment action and process,” the statement said. “The city will vigorously defend its position, and as is customary with pending litigation, will not comment further.”

Taylor separately condemned the suit to the Sentry.

“I think it’s absolutely disgraceful,” he said.  “I think it’s a frivolous lawsuit and an attempt at a publicity stunt by some people who have no basis to file a lawsuit against the city. I think the city is going to defend against it and is not going to take it lightly.”

Although the AICC is not a direct party in the lawsuit, plaintiff attorney Robert Muise said, if his case succeeds, the reversal of the consent judgment would mean that the AICC’s special approval land use would be nullified. From there, it would be up to the AICC to decide whether it would want to pursue a new building proposal that complies with the zoning ordinance, he said.

“They have that option available to them,” he said. “They’d have to scale things down quite a bit to meet the requirements. Certainly they’re free to submit something that might comply. They have to meet the setback requirements, the traffic requirements and all those things that weren’t accounted for.”

In the AICC’s original lawsuit against the city, which was released in August 2016, it said it did comply with the city’s zoning laws. AICC lead attorney Azzam Elder did not respond for comment by press time.

For more information about the American Freedom Law Center, visit www.americanfreedomlawcenter.org. Learn more about Sterling Heights by visiting www.sterling-heights.net or by calling (586) 446-2489.