Sterling Heights announces mosque compromise, settles lawsuits

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published February 22, 2017


A mosque’s dome and spires are on track to appear along 15 Mile Road in Sterling Heights after the city settled two lawsuits pertaining to the issue at a sometimes-rowdy Feb. 21 City Council meeting.

City Council members voted 7-0 to settle a federal case brought forth by the U.S.

Department of Justice late last year, as well as to settle a separate federal lawsuit by the Madison Heights-based American Islamic Community Center.

In August and September of 2015, the city’s Planning Commission reviewed a special approval land use request from the AICC to build a mosque along 15 Mile Road, between Hatherly Place and Davison Drive.

The Planning Commission ended up rejecting the proposal unanimously, citing issues like building height, parking and nonconformity to the surrounding residential neighborhood. Over that same period of time, according to police estimates, hundreds of people gathered in late August and at the September Planning Commission meeting to protest the mosque proposal.

In August 2016, the AICC filed a federal lawsuit against Sterling Heights alleging that the city discriminated against it and infringed on constitutional rights such as the freedom of religion.

In December of that year, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a separate federal lawsuit against the city, accusing it of not following a federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

Anne McClorey McLaughlin, an attorney representing Sterling Heights, said at the Feb. 21 City Council meeting that RLUIPA “imposes a very high standard on local governments” in order for local land use concerns to substantially burden someone’s exercise of religion.

“What this means for Sterling Heights is that AICC has the right to use its land to build a mosque,” she said.

McLaughlin said the city has a valid defense to many of the legal issues, but she said that even if the city were to prevail in court, it would come at a major cost of money and energy, and an AICC mosque would likely still ultimately be built.

She said the city’s legal team negotiated with the AICC to resolve the issues as quickly and as cheaply as possible, and she said the decision was not a rushed process. She emphasized that the resolution involved compromise.

“No one in these negotiations got everything they wanted — not the Department of Justice and not (the) American Islamic Community Center,” she said.

Under the agreement, she said, the 20,500-square-foot mosque will still be built on the property, but the building’s height will be reduced to an undisclosed level below what the original plans entailed.

The AICC originally wanted to make its mosque’s spires 66 feet tall and the dome 58 feet tall. A modified proposal — the one rejected by the Planning Commission — lowered the spires to 57 feet but increased the dome’s height to 65 feet. Within the mosque’s residential zoning district, the height restriction is 30 feet, though exceptions can be made with proper setback distances.

She also said the AICC would provide both onsite parking and plans for overflow parking while making sure that on-street parking doesn’t happen. The mosque will also incorporate shuttle service when needed to ameliorate traffic, she said.

The proposal still prevents outdoor sound projection for a call to prayer, and the AICC will continue to work with the city planner, she added.

McLaughlin explained that the city and the AICC are determining the outcome themselves and are not leaving it to a judge or jury.

“If the city were not to prevail on any of the claims and to proceed to trial, especially if it were not to prevail under RLUIPA,” she said, “most likely a judge would be dictating the terms of the mosque, and you wouldn’t have any say at all as far as what that mosque would look like.”

City officials also said they won’t have to pay damages to the DOJ under a consent order, but will have to train staff to comply with the RLUIPA law. For the litigation, the city will release a deductible of approximately $350,000, while the insurer will cover a confidential amount to AICC for the remainder, McLaughlin said.

Before the council’s vote, Mayor Michael Taylor cut public speaking time to two minutes.

He said that was done to accommodate the packed and overflowing audience. At times, audience members held up paper signs and interrupted the meeting with applause, groans or comments that led to mayoral rebukes. The mayor asked audience members to leave on multiple occasions for being out of order, and before the agenda item’s vote — after the public comment portion had ended — he ordered the audience to leave the council chambers due to disruptions. Comments that specifically concerned the religion of Islam were also considered out of order, as were remarks such as those from former Troy Mayor Janice Daniels, who spoke and alluded to “a political ideology whose goal is death to America.”

Most of the public speakers opposed the building proposal, and several speakers were from the local Chaldean Christian community. Some commenters urged the council to postpone a settlement decision, while others urged the city to fight in court, adding that they thought that settling would imply guilt of discrimination.

Some residents wondered whether the Justice Department would be willing to drop its case due to the transition between President Barack Obama’s and President Donald Trump’s administrations. Resident Sanaa Elias said the Obama administration’s attorney general’s office was “very politicized.”

“You guys have to stand firm and stand for the right decisions you’ve made,” she said. “And if you have to fight this injustice, you will not be alone.”

Resident Steve Naumovski, who sits on the city’s Ethnic Community Committee, protested any attempt to smear the name of Sterling Heights and mentioned that the committee’s chairman, Mohammed Alomari, is Muslim.

“Sterling Heights is a city with (an) excellent record of tolerance, diversity — cultural diversity,” he said. “However, this RLUIPA lawsuit alleges discrimination. There was no such thing in Sterling Heights, never have been.”

Another resident, Jackie Ryan, called the lawsuit frivolous and asked the council members whether they had read the act in question. She suggested that the city sue back.

“This lawsuit doesn’t apply,” she said. “We have no problem with other mosques in our area. … This has to do with certain conditions, and none of these conditions apply to this lawsuit whatsoever.”

On the other side, resident Michael Radtke urged the city to settle the legal issues, saying that failing to do so could bring greater damage.

“This has been a black eye for the city,” he said. “I think we need to put this to bed and move on.”

McLaughlin said the Justice Department under the Trump administration is aware of the lawsuit, and the city has received no indication that the DOJ intends to withdraw the suit. She also denied that the city’s decision to settle admits liability on the city’s behalf.

“There is no determination in this resolution that the city did anything wrong,” she said. “And there is an express denial of liability or any illegal or unconstitutional act by the city of Sterling Heights.”

Taylor said he wasn’t happy that the AICC filed a lawsuit, and he thought any issues could have been resolved without one.

But while he said that he supported the Planning Commission’s judgment on the proposal’s rejection, he also believes that the AICC has a right to build so long as it complies with legitimate zoning and planning issues.

“I specifically and vehemently deny that the Planning Commission operated in any way to discriminate or violate the rights of the American Islamic Community Center, and I’ll stand by that until the day I die,” Taylor said.

“But you have to remember: That doesn’t mean that the right to build a mosque is forever lost. They have the ability to amend that proposal.”

Taylor assured residents that the house of worship will not be disruptive or unsafe to residents. He said some of the mosque’s members serve on city boards or committees, have children who attend local schools, or are otherwise part of the community’s fabric.

“I think that there were items of the special land use approval that were not met by the AICC when they first came for Planning Commission approval, but they’ve now been met,” he said. “So there is no reason to keep going forward. We have to approve this because it’s the right thing to do.”

AICC lead attorney Azzam Elder said the AICC’s members are happy with the settlement and “relieved after almost two years of dealing with this unexpected reaction.” He explained that they are looking forward to truly getting to know their neighbors and vice versa, adding that the group’s members include American war veterans, doctors, pharmacists, teachers, engineers and UAW workers.

“I believe today is really a victory for all Americans, and especially the American Muslims who are residents of Sterling Heights, and it’s a victory for our U.S. Constitution that has once again proven that it has withstood the test of time,” he said.

Regarding the new specific heights of the mosque’s dome and spires, Elder said that, based on his recollection, the agreement changed the spires’ height to 60 or 61 feet and the dome’s height to about 53 feet. City Planner Chris McLeod said the dome will be approximately 53 feet 4 inches, and the spires will be around 60 feet including ornamentation.

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