A Michigan community being sued by the Obama Justice Department and CAIR for rejecting the construction of a large Islamic school has agreed to settle out of court for $1.7 million and allow the project to go forward.
The tentative settlement agreed to by Pittsfield Township would be one of the largest cash payouts ever by a U.S. municipality to a mosque. The deal could send shock waves throughout the nation among communities fighting to keep large mosques and madrasas out of residential areas.
The settlement grants an Ann Arbor-based mosque led by a Syrian imam the right to build a 70,000-square-foot Islamic school, a residential development consisting of 22 duplex units and three single-family homes, plus a park, the Detroit News reported.
Shaykh Moataz Al-Hallak migrated to the U.S. from Syria in the 1980s and has been organizing and leading mosques ever since. The New York Times reported on Sept. 18, 2001, that Al-Hallak was “a Muslim cleric suspected of ties to the Osama bin Laden organization” and that he had been banned from preaching at a Texas mosque because he was “considered by some congregants as having an overly rigid interpretation of Muslim theology.”
But he has found a home in Michigan and is poised to greatly expanding his influence after this week’s settlement, a deal he won with the full backing of the U.S. Department of Justice.
Pittsfield Township not only agreed to pay $1.7 million and allow the project to move forward, but it also agreed to have its elected leaders and staff receive sensitivity training in how not to discriminate against Muslims or any other religious minorities.
The Pittsfield case, by the sheer amount of the payout, could have a chilling effect on any city or town considering a mosque location or expansion, say legal experts. Many such legal battles are in process, including a major one in nearby Sterling Heights, Michigan, reported recently by WND.
“It’s not surprising,” said Karen Lugo, a constitutional law attorney with expertise in the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal statute under which the Michigan Muslims claimed discrimination.
“With a RLUIPA lawsuit by the time many municipalities get to the point where there has been court proceedings and settlement negotiations the attorney fees that the municipality would have to pay in a losing court judgment are so formidable that even a costly settlement looks appealing,” said Lugo.
Lugo added that when the DOJ enters the case against a city, that adds more pressure to settle. At that point the city’s lawyers “would anticipate that legal proceedings would continue to be prolonged and even more costly,” she said.
Pittsfield Township, a community just outside of Ann Arbor, denied the construction permit saying the project would be incompatible with the surrounding residential zoning and would cause undue traffic and congestion.
But the owner of the property, a Shariah-compliant Ann Arbor mosque backed by the Council on American-Islamic Relations or CAIR, filed suit against Pittsfield Township in 2012.
The U.S. Justice Department joined the case last year on the side of the mosque, claiming Pittsfield was violating RLUIPA, a law passed by Congress in 2000 that prohibits local governments from imposing zoning regulations that “substantially burden” religious rights “unless there is a compelling government interest.”
CAIR gets involved
CAIR, a spinoff of the extremist Muslim Brotherhood and an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation terror-funding trial in 2007-08, gloated about the settlement in statements given to the Detroit News Thursday.
“We welcome the settlement with Pittsfield Township and hope the outcome of this case will serve as a deterrent to other municipalities throughout the country seeking to deny Muslim institutions the right to build or expand their facilities on the basis of religion,” said Lena Masri, CAIR-Michigan’s legal director.
“In a year when so much has gone wrong for the Muslim community, this settlement is an example of the good things that can happen when Muslim communities stand up for their rights,” said Gadeir Abbas, who served as co-counsel on the case.
Several of CAIR’s former leaders have also been charged and convicted of terrorist-related crimes over the years. [See WND’s ‘Rogue’s Gallery’ of terror-tied CAIR officials]
The applicant in the Pittsfield case is the Muslim Community Association of Ann Arbor and Vicinity, which is led by imam Moataz Al-Hallak, an immigrant from Syria who has been under FBI investigation in the past for suspected radical ties.
According to his official bio on the mosque website, Al-Hallak memorized the Quran at a young age and received an Ijazah [certificate] in 1979 from a leading authority in qira’aat, which represents the verbal recitation of the Quran.
He has served as an imam in the U.S. since 1986, having founded or led mosques in Arlington, Texas; Bowie, Maryland, and Ann Arbor, Michigan. Moataz has, according to his mosque’s website:
- Founded and built the first full time Islamic school in North Texas
- Founding member of the Islamic Society of Arlington, Texas
- Founding member of several national Islamic organizations
He also currently:
- Serves as an advisory member on the Fatwa standing committee of the Assembly of Muslim Jurists in North America
- Serves on the board of directors of the Islamic Shura Council of South Michigan
- Serves on the board of directors of the Muslim Social Services
His mosque in Ann Arbor requires Muslim women to be veiled and requires them to pray in a separate room adjacent to the main prayer hall where only men are allowed, according to its website.
As part of the government settlement, which must still be approved by the U.S. District Court in Detroit, the township has agreed to permit the academy to construct a school, to treat the school and all other religious groups equally and to publicize its nondiscrimination policies and practices, federal officials said.
In addition, the township will report periodically to the U.S. Justice Department, the Detroit News reported.
“Federal law protects the religious beliefs, freedoms and practices of all communities, including the right to build religious institutions free from unlawful and unfair barriers,” said Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
“This agreement will allow the Michigan Islamic Academy to build the facility it needs to serve its members and contribute to the community of Pittsfield.”
Obama DOJ going after cities that reject mosques
The Department of Justice has been more aggressive under President Obama in investigating what it considers to be discriminatory zoning practices against mosques and Islamic schools.
Cities reject churches and synagogues almost every day in one city or another. But fewer of those rejections are ending up in federal litigation while the mosque rejections are increasing.
The percentage of federal RLUIPA investigations involving mosques or Islamic schools has risen from 15 percent in the 2000 to August 2010 period to 38 percent during the September 2010 to present period, according to a DOJ report posted on July 27.
The Pittsfield Township settlement, while one of the largest ever won by a mosque against a municipality in America, is not the only large settlement in recent years. Some have included not only cash but free land, Lugo said.
“In my opinion I would not characterize it as the largest knowing that there are some other municipalities that have contributed land so their settlement package may be larger but this certainly ranks as one of largest.”
The settlement still needs court approval.
A lesson for other cities
Lugo said if cities begin to engage in RLUIPA’s “safe harbor” provision before they have a religious application filed they stand a much better chance of defending their residential areas against a large project like that proposed in Pittsfield Township.
“The ‘safe harbor’ provision suggests that cities can designate areas within their jurisdiction where they make it easier for a religious application to succeed while at the same time creating zoning that prioritizes the residential or industrial character of a zoned district and makes it more difficult for an assembly or religious use to come in. You create hurdles like traffic-count standards, noise volume levels, parking requirements, etc. with generally an interest in limiting volume and activity.”
She said municipalities have learned from examples like Dar El Farooq mosque in Bloomington, Minnesota, that when an Islamic school is prescribed on a zoning application the reality may become not just a K-12 program but also university classes, weekend seminars and support services “that run into the very late hours of the night.”