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Islamic center sues city over mosque proposal rejection

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published August 12, 2016

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STERLING HEIGHTS — The American Islamic Community Center recently filed a 54-page lawsuit against the city of Sterling Heights after the city rejected the center’s mosque proposal in 2015.

The AICC, based in Madison Heights, announced Aug. 10 that it had filed its lawsuit with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan against Sterling Heights. In addition, the religious group is asking for the federal government to get involved — particularly the U.S. Department of Justice.

The lawsuit alleges discrimination against the AICC and the breaching of its constitutional rights. More specifically, it cites the First Amendment’s free exercise clause, the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and more.

The lawsuit says the AICC seeks a ruling that protects its constitutional rights, as well as a judgment “in an amount to be determined by this Court and a jury, plus attorney fees, costs, interest, (and) exemplary and punitive damages.”

AICC lead attorney Azzam Elder said the AICC still hopes to build its mosque in the city with the help of a favorable federal court ruling. He said the AICC was left with no choice but to sue, adding that city authorities have the responsibility to represent all citizens, including Muslims.

“The elected officials (decided) to play politics and allow politics to trump the Constitution,” Elder said. “And it is wrong, and we will prove it in court.”

Elder’s press release says the AICC had earlier moved to make a purchase agreement for property along 15 Mile Road. The property is located between Hatherly Place and Davison Drive — an area more broadly located between Ryan and Mound roads.

The AICC says it is leasing about 4.3 acres of property in that spot, and it says that it may acquire it as soon as it gets a mosque construction permit. According to the suit, 80 percent of the AICC’s members live in Sterling Heights.

The Islamic group said the property was zoned to permit houses of worship, and the AICC says it met the requirements to construct a mosque. It asserts that city planning staff initially recommended that the mosque plan be approved and that it “met and exceeded all site plan requirements.”

But the suit blames a “hostile Planning Commission and public” for the decision to eventually reject the proposal. The mosque issue was raised at the Sterling Heights Planning Commission last year in August and September before packed audiences at City Hall.

On Sept. 10, the Planning Commission denied the AICC a special approval land use request to build the proposed mosque. That day, City Planner Don Mende announced a recommendation to deny the request on the basis of the building’s size, parking needs and its alleged nonconformance to the surrounding residential area.

The size of the 20,500-square-foot proposed mosque and the heights of its spires and dome were mentioned as issues. An earlier plan set the spires and dome at around 66 feet and 58 feet, and a later plan changed those features’ heights to 65 feet and 57 feet, respectively.

City officials said a 30-foot height restriction existed within the proposed mosque’s R-60 residential district. The AICC’s lawsuit notes the restriction but says an exception exists, in which height “may be increased in conjunction with increased building setbacks,” and it said the structure adhered to those increased setback requirements. The lawsuit also addresses the city’s other arguments for denying the approval.

In addition, the lawsuit accuses city officials of conspiring to deny the mosque application and accuses Mende of doing “round robin” discussions with Planning Commission members prior to the Sept. 10 vote.

It also accuses Sterling Heights police of using email to discuss the possibility of asking an FBI contact about whether the mosque or associated individuals were “on their radar.”

The suit also asserts that Sterling Heights’ zoning ordinance treated the AICC unfavorably compared to nonreligious assemblies by making the group go through the Planning Commission to seek a special land use approval in an R-60 district. It says that municipal buildings and schools also fall within that district.

An Aug. 10 official statement from Sterling Heights says the city “has not been served” with the AICC’s 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,” the city statement says.

Mayor Michael Taylor declined to comment when reached Aug. 11.

Last September, Taylor touted his city’s commitment to welcoming diversity in an emailed statement, adding that two mosques already exist in the city, and this mosque application was weighed “based on objective land use criteria and not emotional feelings tied to religious beliefs either for or against the applicant.”

Find out more about Sterling Heights by visiting www.sterling-heights.net or by calling (586) 446-2489.