WASHINGTON – Concerned residents in a small Northern Virginia community have dug up misleading information in the application by a local Islamic center for a permit that would have cleared the way to build a mosque, and it may be an example of a pattern of deception practiced around the country.
The information includes:
- An apparent attempt to mislead residents on the use of facility
- An apparent attempt to mislead residents on the size of the facility
- And an apparent attempt hide the identity of the owner of the property where the facility would be located
On April 5, 2016, by a vote of 4 to 3, the Culpeper County, Virginia, board of supervisors denied an application by the Islamic Center of Culpeper for a “pump and haul” permit on a piece of land where it wants to build a mosque, because such septic systems in the mostly rural area are supposed to be temporary and for emergency use only.
Then, on Dec. 12, 2016, the Justice Department sued the county under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA, for denying the permit. The DOJ claimed the board denied the permit because of religious reasons and public pressure, citing the fact the county had issued 26 such permits since 1992 and denied only one of the last 19.
However, in 2002 the Virginia Department of Health found that particular site unsuitable for a septic tank or the alternative, a drain field. Additionally, the supervisors never mentioned religion as a reason for denying the permit.
Supervisor Gary Deal told the local paper, the Daily Progress, he didn’t have a discriminatory bone in his body and that the Islamic Center request did not meet the hardship requirement, saying: “Any hardship would be self-inflicted. I can’t support it.”
Supervisor Jack Frazier told the paper that if the site had been a private residence with a failing septic system he would have supported a pump-and-haul permit, but he also found there was no such hardship.
Supervisor Bill Chase said, “I’m dead set against this – not because of religion, but because of use.”
Applicant Mohammad Nawabe said,”It looks like discrimination to me,” and he blamed the mentality of “small country people.
Since the DOJ filed suit, concerned residents have dug up some apparently misleading information in the case made by the Islamic Center.
Nawabe had told the board that up to 15 people would attend the meetings at the envisioned mosque. Fellow Islamic Center member Nabeel Babar said the congregation was “really small and like a family, and it’s still like that.”
The original application from the Islamic Center of Culpeper stated the proposed use for the site would be “for praying and meeting once a week.”
However, the gofundme page of the Islamic Center of Culpeper, VA, or ICC, details much bigger plans for the site.
The page says: “The ICC Board of Directors has planned to purchase its own property to build a proper Islamic Center in the Town of Culpeper. We plan to have a full-fledged Masjid (mosque), Weekend Islamic School and Youth Center, insha’Allah.”
So, there appears to be a rather large discrepancy between the applicants’ claims and the claims on the Islamic Center’s website over the size of the facility and its use.
A “full-fledged mosque” certainly appears to be something exceeding the needs of a 15 members gathering for a weekly prayer session.
And a mosque, Weekend Islamic School and Youth Center would certainly seem to provide more than just a place to pray.
The applicants also appeared to mislead the board over just how big the facility might become, as the Islamic Center website calls itself “a small but rapidly growing community.”
There’s another apparent discrepancy in the deed and a question about just how ownership of the property changed hands.
Five days after the haul-and-pump permit application was denied, on April 19, 2016, the sale of the property was initially recorded in the Culpeper Times for $15,000 to Iglesia Pentecostal Cristo Viene INC.
A Deed of Correction was submitted on June 22, 2016, “correcting” the name of the owner and changing it to the Islamic Center of Culpeper.
However, the Virginia law for correcting deeds states: “Correction deeds can help to clarify the manner in which title to the property is held by the same, initially named grantee, but they cannot be used to change the grantee or to add or omit a grantee.”
It appears the Deed of Correction was used precisely to change the name on the deed, an apparent violation of the law.
Concerned residents of Culpeper told WND they suspect the name was changed after the sale was announced to hide the true identity of the owner, the Islamic Center.
Attorney and constitutional law instructor Karen Lugo is an expert in this field, as the author of the recently released “Mosques in America: A Guide to Accountable Permit Hearings and Continuing Citizen Oversight.”
She suggested the Culpeper case may be part of larger pattern of misleading mosque applications and is currently conducting research to confirm that.
Lugo first noted “the noncompliant deed transfer, the application in another organization’s name, and a generic assertion that there would be one weekly meeting and prayer.”
That led her to observe: “But when checking the website, and by the way this is a pattern and it’s happening in cases across the country, there’s a very generic indication as to there will be some prayer meeting. But when you go to websites or look at a parent organization’s existing meeting practices, you find out that there will be an array of very wide-ranging activities from schools to daycare to counseling to education.”
WND asked if she would call that intentionally deceptive.
“I would say that the result is misleading,” Lugo replied.
She said municipalities are often in the dark as to the real plans for a mosque unless they know to consult external sources.
She said the result is often “like the situation of al-Farouk Youth and Family Center in Bloomington, Minnesota, where the testimony at the hearing was they would have only 150 people, generally on Fridays, and a maximum of a maximum of 200 for highest level services. like Ramadan services.”
“Immediately those numbers were inflated by multiples of 10. There were thousands congregating during Ramadan and hundreds congregating, 800 or 900, on some Fridays.”
WND asked if Lugo saw such a misleading approach as part of a pattern.
She noted that mosque applicants are submitting numbers that typically that show 150.
“That’s a number that I’m seeing repeated. It’s for 150 and for general prayer. That the number arises as an interesting coincidence,” she said.
She mentioned another recurring feature.
“It is very rare that the application is filed as a mosque. It’s usually called a cultural center or a community center, and, or, in some cases it doesn’t even relate to the kind of group. And Culpeper is one of those in which it was very difficult to determine who was applying.”
However, the legal scholar cautioned: “At this point, I am just beginning to research whether this is a consistent pattern. What is a pattern is that the applications are submitted as a community center or cultural center.”
She did say the Culpeper case is one in a “series of incidents which gave a municipality very little understanding of the standing and the type of use that was being applied for.”
“What is also a pattern, according to my research so far, is that very few activity details are initially provided. And many times the level and intensity of the activities is only determined if the planning officials know to ask of those specific questions and to consult external sources to find that out.”
Some residents of Culpeper are concerned about the nature of the mosque. They told WND that the ICC has had help from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR.
That was confirmed to WND by former FBI counter-terrorism trainer John Guandolo, an expert on the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic doctrine and the global Islamic movement who has been following the Culpeper saga.
CAIR was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in a criminal conspiracy to support both the terrorist group Hamas and the Texas-based Holy Land Foundation in 2008.
Culpeper residents told WND that some local officials, and even the local paper, have hesitated to publish or say anything in protest due to threats from CAIR.
Amplifying concerns for area residents is that, as WND reported, law enforcement authorities announced in December they had uncovered and arrested a ring of ISIS supporters in Northern Virginia who were recruiting followers on social media.
Not all mosques may become havens or breeding grounds for terrorists or radical Islamists. But, as WND reported, mosques usually serve as “centers of gravity” for jihadi rings, according to Philip Haney, one of the nation’s top experts on radical Islam and a former terrorist-identification expert for the Department of Homeland Security.
In any event, Culpeper County Attorney Bobbi Jo Alexis maintains religion had nothing to do with the rejection of the application for the pump-and-haul permit.
Alexis noted that nothing is stopping the ICC from legally building its mosque on the property. And, in her response to the DOJ lawsuit, she strenuously objected to the accusation that the permit was denied because on religious grounds.
Her primary argument was that RLUIPA does not even apply to the Culpeper case because it is not a land-use issue at all; it is a sewage issue. And the applicants never even looked into available alternatives to pump and haul.
Here are the key points Alexis made in her Dec. 7 letter to the DOJ in response to its lawsuit against Culpeper County.
The County feels strongly that the instant facts do not fall within the purview of RLUIPA.
The County has implemented no land use regulation that imposes any burden, much less a substantial burden, on any religious exercise or a regulation that discriminates against religious entities on the basis of religion or religious denomination. Yet land use regulation is the focus of RLUIPA, not the handling of sewage.
The permit application in the instant case concerns a request of the ICC to haul feces (sewage waste) away from the subject-site and about the County. This process is known as “pump and haul.” It involves storing the excrement on site, picking it up potentially months later, and carrying it to another site for disposal. This issue concerns a quintessential health matter, management and disposal of excrement, and not the use of the land as or by a religious entity.
The Virginia Administrative Code (VAC), which governs human waste removal, provides that pump and haul should be an unusual circumstance. Moreover, pumping and hauling on a permanent basis (for over one year) is prohibited by Virginia law unless done under the auspices and supervision of a government entity. These restrictions are not surprising given that the pumping and hauling of waste can result in contamination not only on the site from which the feces are pumped and the one into which they are pumped but also dripping along roadways and other property during transport.
The ICC’s application earlier this year to the County Board of Supervisors (the “Board”) sought a permanent permit to dispose of excrement by hauling it away from the site and upon the roads of the County. The ICC did not investigate or explore any of the preferred methods of disposal of the feces, as expressed under Virginia law.
The ICC should have explored alternative systems before petitioning the Board. Where a site cannot support a traditional drain field and/or septic system, many alternative methods are readily available to treat the feces on site in an environmentally sound manner. These methods are akin to a mini-sewage treatment plant and offer a more efficient and sanitary solution than the pump and haul approach.
Moreover, the County’s action does not prevent the ICC from locating to the site. Thus, the County imposed no burden on the ICC’s ability to engage in religious exercise.
However, Lugo told WND: “My perspective on it is that Culpeper will likely have a difficult time because this still relates to a land-use proceeding, where an individualized assessment occurred.” And the court could interpret that individualized assessment as having been one of singling out the mosque for different treatment because of its religious character. It would mostly depend on how the county had handled such applications in the past.
Even though Lugo believed RLUIPA likely applies to the Culpeper case, that is not the whole story.
The land-use legal expert described to WND how law itself gives municipalities more power than they have been exercising.
“Here is the key. I don’t think municipalities have been effective in arguing what their part of the burden in the legal case is. The burden to prove things shifts back and forth. So, if the Islamic applicant comes in, in this case, and says you substantially burdened us, then the municipality has the opportunity under the legal definition of the way religious cases work to say, ‘Well, we had a compelling interest in doing so.'”
In other words, the law does not leave towns, cities and counties without the right to defend their rights to self-determination.
“I think municipalities have not explored the need to create records to show that there was a compelling and a sensible zoning interest,” summed up Lugo.
She suspected that the fallback position of the Culpeper County attorney would be, “Okay, if we have to argue and defend this under RLUIPA terms, then we will assert this as our compelling governmental interest in health, sanitation.”
And that could be a winning argument in court.
“When it’s health, nuisance, safety, those kind of things can rise to the level where the courts will say yes that’s a compelling governmental interest,” asserted Lugo.
Another factor may help turn the tide is that the top management at the DOJ will change following the election of Donald Trump as president.
WND asked Lugo what the future holds for RLUIPA suits filed by the DOJ, especially if there is an emerging pattern of misleading mosque applications?
“I see some of these suits possibly settling out sooner, simply because the perspective on the case may change.”
She cited recent comments by former President George W. Bush Attorney General Michael Mukasey.
Lugo noted, when asked how will the new DOJ be different, “The first thing he said was that the discrimination cases coming out of the Justice Department will likely return to the standards requiring proof of intent to practice discrimination, and not just what this DOJ has been doing, which is trying to make the case that discrimination is behind every ‘no answer.'”
She explained that “in the past, the focus has been more intent to practice discrimination.”
“So, it’s practice versus pattern. I heard Mukasey immediately indicate that the new DOJ may go back to the application of the law as written.”
WND asked if that would shift the burden of proof onto applicants as supposed municipalities.
“Yes,” was the succinct response. “And put the burden on the courts and the DOJ to find evidence of discrimination. They could no longer just say that because a minority group received a ‘no’ answer that means discrimination.”
She concluded, “I think those cases that are currently under investigation and that haven’t become litigation yet will be evaluated as to whether that discrimination is based on circumstantial evidence or whether there is proof or demonstration or intent to discriminate.”