Newton County, GA

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Description

A documented account of Case No. GA_09, occurring in Covington, GA. 30016 in Newton County from August - September 2016

Year

2016

Proposed Project

135-acre development for cemetery; future mosque, cemetery expansion, school as well as residential and open space

Outcome

delayed, approved (as proposed)

Narrative

The Story Breaks

On August 9, 2016, local journalist Alice Queen writes in the Rockdale Citizen that a non-profit organization from Doraville, Al Maad Al Islami Inc., had received administrative approval from Newton County to develop a 135-acre property on the southeastern side of the county for a mosque and cemetery. Current zoning regulations do not require that the property be rezoned for the construction of a religious site (Sec. 510-480 of the Newton County Zoning Ordinance). The developer had purchased the property in August 2015 and submitted preliminary conceptual plans for a 10.5 acre cemetery with burial preparation accessory facility. Also included in the preliminary plans was space for a future mosque, cemetery expansion, school as well as residential and open space. Post on social media and in the local paper’s comment section are mostly critical. Commissioner John Douglas, in whose district the planned development is located, reports having received email and phone calls of residents opposed to the project. Douglas voices concern over not having received advanced notification over this potentially controversial project. Houses of worship are permitted in all zoning districts under current county regulations and do not need zoning approval by the BOC. Douglas voices preference for changing the zoning ordinances for future developments. In his public comments, he further asks whether the county has a “need” for such a development based on the number of Muslim residents in the county and speculates about the consequences permitting the project: “[W]ould building those things make us a prime area for the federal government to resettle refugees from the Middle East?” (Queen 2016). Local residents are reported to be alarmed about possible increase in traffic and noise as well as about the perceived lack of public knowledge about the project (ibid.). By August 13, 2016, the story has been picked up by Freedom Outpost, which the Research Center at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism lists as fake news site known for peddling conspiracy theories, and The Washington Standard. Among others, the coverage dredges up a dismissed complaint filed against Masjid At-Taqwa in DeKalb State Court in 2013 and seeks to link the community with eponymous communities throughout the U.S. Similar arguments can later be heard during the public hearings.

Emails sent to and from county commissioners during this initial period are later made public. These highlight Chairman Ellis’ personal struggle responding to the project. Writes Ellis, “There is only one decision the board may face. The school, if they decide to build one, will need a conditional use permit. The mosque and cemetery do not require any approval. They can build them under the current zoning by law. … As Christians, we must be prayed up. We face spiritual warfare daily. I will attempt to do as Jesus would do” (Chris Joyner, Email reveal pnaic over proposed Newton mosque, AJC, Sep 1, 2016). Ellis later admits in an interview with Public Radio International that “[a]s a Christian, I probably reacted in some of the same ways. I will have to admit that I was a little nervous for the future of Newton County” (Matthew Bell, “ A planned Muslim cemetery and mosque outside of Atlanta is still on hold,” PRI’s The world, Nov 30, 2016). District 1 Commissioner John Douglas is more blunt in his email communication with concerned residents in which he states the suspicion that the Muslim community tried to deceive the public by submitting an initial Administrative Use Permit in the name of Avery Community Church. One email to a member of the local clergy states, “at this point, it looks like it was done in secret to prevent the citizens and me from being able to impact it while it could be impacted.” Douglas continues, “a show of local residents would be helpful to back up our displeasure and desire to change the direction of this project” (Tegna, “Emails: Newton Commissioners wanted to ‘impact’ mosque, cemetery project,” 11 Alive News, Sep 5, 2016). Douglas asks the Board of Commissioners to put the cemetery project on the agenda for the next scheduled meeting at August 16, 2016.

Five-Week Moratorium on Permitting Places of Worship

An overflow crowd of about 500 people attends the August 16 meeting of the Newton County Board of Commissioners to voice anger over the proposed cemetery project. Reports Marbaugh, "The second-floor former courtroom, site of the BOC meeting, was packed with a boisterous standing-room-only crowd. At least 100 people strained to listen through open doors in the two upstairs hallways and another 100 or more waited in the first-floor lobby, restrained by sheriff’s deputies from ascending the stairways to witness the action" (Marbaugh Aug 17, 2006).

Residents criticize the lack of public input on the planned project. Suggestions that the project was moved through the county’s Administrative Use Permit (AUP) process by deception are amplified when Commissioner Douglas expresses concern that the project plans had been submitted under the name Avery Community Church and Cemetery stating, “[Y]ou have to wonder why they picked that name” (ibid.). County Manager Lloyd Kerr states that he had become aware of the fact that the proposed project was a Muslim cemetery only a few days ago on August 8 when county officials meet with the project engineer. Kerr either is unaware or fails to mention that Newton County Development Services issued an AUP letter (AUP 15 000235) on June 16, 2015, that lists the developer as “AL MAAD AL ISLAMI INC aka Avery Community Church” (Phil Johnson, “Attorney Johnson provides details on land sale,” [Commentary] Rockdale Citizen, Aug 18, 2016).

Douglas proposes a five-week moratorium on permitting places of worship (until September 21, 2016). The commissioners unanimously vote in favor the moratorium. Douglas later states that the moratorium will give the county time to review current county ordinances governing zoning for places of worship and to propose amendments. Because no public comment is allowed at this BOC meeting, the commissioners make a final decision, motioned by Douglas and followed by a 5-0 vote in favor, to hold a public hearing on Monday, August 22, in a public venue large enough to accommodate the interested public. Although the decision to impose the moratorium was greeted with cheers from many in attendance, the NAACP and other Muslim groups such as CAIR-GA see the action as “clearly discriminatory” and call on the Justice Department (DOJ) to investigate the case (CAIR Press Release, Aug 22, 2016). The County responds to the accusations defending itself in a letter dated August 19, 2016, that reads, “The County asserts that it has acted entirely within its Constitutional and statutory authority. (...) The County cannot be held responsible for the comments and actions of individual members of the community.”

Social Media Reactions

Following the BOC meeting of August 16, a petition to stop the development of the cemetery site starts circulating on the newly-created Facebook site The Hwy 162 Avery Development - mosque petition. By August 23, the site self-reports 853 signatures but stops posting updates after September 9. In its initial posts the petition site links to the blog Al Maad Al Islami Mosque. The blog is administered by Bill Harris, a self-described citizen journalist, who also maintains two sites about the earlier Masjid Suffah controversy in Kennesaw, Georgia. Although Harris continues these blog sites, the most prominent, still existing social media site in opposition to the cemetery project is the Facebook group STOP the Mosque in Newton county (aka SONG Alliance). Post to the site begin on August 16 after which the group quickly establishes itself as the most influential social media site through which opponents express their hostility to the project and organize action seeking to prevent it from going forward.

STOP the Mosque in Newton County picks up oppositional momentum in the weeks leading up to the Public Hearings. Despite occasional rejoinders by the site administrator that the group is concerned about zoning issues and due process, administrative post frequently link to content from Islamophobic sites such as such as ACT for America and The Clarion Project. The level of hostility toward Muslims expressed on the site leads the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) to include the group (now rebranded as the SONG Alliance) in its 2017 listing of anti-Muslim hate groups. It is the only such group the SPLC identifies as operating statewide in Georgia. The group currently, in February 2019, has close to 1,400 followers.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, three Facebook groups come into existence in August 2016. Measured by the number of followers and post history, however, these attract far less social media attention than STOP the mosque in Newton County. Supporters of Newton Mosque and We welcome the mosque in Newton County, Georgia, both operate between August 21 and mid to late September. A third group, Newton County Muslim Support, is particularly active in organizing counter-protests on the Covington Square on September 13 and 20, 2016. It slightly outlasts the other two with an active posting history until January 28, 2017. Yet, unlike the other two, it does not come into existence until after the public hearings of Monday, August 22, 2016.

Public Hearings

The initial location for the public hearing on Monday, August 22, 2016, was a local local high school stadium, but the commissioners decide to move the meeting indoors to the Historic Courthouse. Due to limited space in the meeting room, two seatings are scheduled, each limited to 300 participants (6:00-7:30 p.m. and 7:45-9:15 p.m.). Those unable to attend are encouraged to submit comments in writing to the Newton County Board of Commissioners. On the night of the public hearing, most speakers voice opposition to the project. While some express concern over the effect of a large development, others speak of their fear of terrorism and question the ability of Muslims to assimilate into the community. Anxiety that the project will serve as an Al-Qaeda training camp or that it will lead to the imposition of Sharia law in the community can be heard as well (Bluestein, AJC, Aug 23, 2016). Outside the courthouse, lines form around the building with people waiting to be allowed to enter. Ad-hoc demonstrators with a COEXIST flag stand next to another group holding an American flag. The public meetings receive unflattering national press coverage (“Islamophobia in the age of Trump,” Economist, Aug 23, 2016).

Civil Society: Protest and Support

Following the public hearing, CAIR Georgia holds a joint press conference at the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam with the Georgia NAACP and other organizations on August 23. The press conference addresses the Islamophobic statements heard at the town hall meeting the previous night and provides an update on the DOJ’s response to CAIR’s call for a federal investigation. Edward Mitchell, Executive Director of CAIR-GA, says that the DOJ had agreed to review CAIR’s request and was in the process of deciding whether to begin a formal probe. Mitchell also reports on local outreach activities to churches and community leaders in Newton County. At the same time of the press conference, a delegation of Newton County clergy (Beckham, Rockdale Citizen, Aug 26, 2016)) and residents follow a lunch invitation from Imam Mohammad Islam to visit the Doraville community at Masjid At-Taqwa to get to know each other and build mutual trust (Lutz, AJC, Aug 23, 2016).

Public opposition is stoked further by outside figures who frame the cemetery debate around issues of immigration and code violations. The first important figure is Tom Owens, whose home in Doraville is adjacent to Masjid At-Taqwa. In 2013, he filed a lawsuit in DeKalb State Court court against the mosque for alleged code violations (Civil Action File No. 13A46164-5, Feb 25, 2013). The case was dismissed in 2014, but Newton County opponents frequently reference the allegations Owens made in the lawsuit and present them as evidence of the mosque’s insincerity and unwillingness to comply with regulations. Owens unsuccessfully ran for the Georgia state house in 2016 on an anti-immigration platform. He is closely tied to Joe Newton from Gwinnett County who has stirred the political debate over immigration and refugee resettlement. Newton ran the now-defunct website www.refugeeresettlementrelief.com and reportedly circulated a petition against a proposed Bosnian cemetery at a Gwinnett County Planning Commission meeting in October 2015 (Curt Yeomans, “Planning commissioners OK Bosnian cemetery over community objections,” Gwinnett Daily Post, Oct 5, 2015). A letter by Joe Newton addressing the Newton County Commission Chairman Keith Ellis circulates on the STOP the mosque in Newton County Facebook page in late August 2016. In it, Owens accuses the Muslim community of deceit and fraud in the application process and requests that the county government void the application.

A group of Newton county clergy and local residents, some of whom had followed Imam Mohammad’s invitation to visit his community in Doraville on August 23, gather at Oxford College to consider community responses to the conflict. They decide to facilitate a lunch event at the College on September 7 between members of Masjid At-Taqwa and interested Newton County residents and, in the meantime, to address the conflict in their communities. The idea of a joint letter to the editor in local papers is discussed but does not become reality before the community meeting. Instead, Pastor David Armstrong-Reiner of Epiphany Lutheran in Conyers publishes a single-authored column on September 1. Several of his colleagues speak to the conflict in the community and the need for tolerance and understanding in their Sunday sermons on September 4. More than forty people attend the subsequent lunch at the Oxford College Dining Hall on Wednesday, September 7 (“Newton pastors and citizens host luncheon with Imam Mohammad Islam and members of Masjid Attaqwa, The Metro Times, Sep 9, 2016).

Local Government

On August 26, 2016, the local paper publishes a letter of the mayors of all five towns in Newton County. It is penned by Ronnie Johnston, mayor of city of Covington, and signed by the mayors of Porterdale, Oxford, Newborn, and Mansfield. “The nation is watching Newton County,” opens the letter and continues, “we are being embarrassed by our County leaders.” Johnson emphasizes the need to follow existing rules and laws and contains four requests: to remove the moratorium; set up a meeting between leaders of the proposed mosque, county officials and majors; transparency that due diligence is carried out; and fully execute the permitting process.

Closed-door meetings between representatives of Masjid At-Taqwa and members of the Newton County Board of Commissioners are reported to take place in the week of August 29. Newton Country representatives involved in these meetings are Chairman Keith Ellis, County Attorney Megan Martin, County Manager Lloyd Kerr, Commissioner J.C. Henderson as well as Commissioners Lanier Sims and Nancy Schulz and Oxford Mayor Roseberry and Covington Mayor Johnson. Nancy Schulz says of the meeting that she and others had left the session feeling reassured that the members of the Muslim community “want to be good neighbors” and that “it was very clear that they would follow our ordinances and that they had no intention of circumventing our ordinances” (Alice Queen, “Newton County commissioners meet with mosque representatives,” Rockdale Citizen, Aug 31, 2016).

On August 31, the Newton County commissioners release a joint statement with CAIR-GA stating that they expect to lift the moratorium on a special-called commissioner meeting on September 13. (Steve Burns, “Newton County to lift moratorium on mosque, cemetery,” AJC, Aug 31, 2016). Commissioners are also expected to be updated on proposed changes to the the Newton County’s zoning ordinance at that meeting. Edward Mitchell, executive director of CAIR-GA, holds a news conference about the talks in front of the Newton County Courthouse. None of the commissioners are present. Mitchell thanks and commends “the Newton County commissioners for pledging to lift the moratorium on permits for houses of worship.” He adds, “Although Newton Muslims will once again have the right to proceed with building a cemetery and house of worship, they plan to first spend more time building bridges with their neighbors.”

Moratorium Expires

Imam Mohammad and his community accept invitations from local churches over the following weeks and reach out to neighbors in Newton County. One such visit takes place on Sunday, September 11, 2016, when about forty members of Masjid At-Taqwa visit Epiphany Lutheran Church in Conyers on the invitation of Pastor David Armstrong-Reiner. On the same day, September 11, the III% Georgia Security Force, a militia organization, holds a protest in the parking lot of a local Baptist church across from the cemetery on Ga. 162. The group is led by Chris Hill, a McDonough resident and former marine. He is known for his unsubstantiated claims about the mosque’s connection to terrorist outfits and for equating Muslims with “the Antichrist” (Chris Joyner, “Known extremists fan mosque debate,” AJC, Sep 22, 2016). His group calls for an armed rally in front of the Newton County courthouse at the time of the county commission meeting on Tuesday, September 13. After a self-made video of the militia gathering is released on social media, the Newton County Board of Commissioners cancels its planned Tuesday meeting citing security concerns. (Meris Lutz, MyAJC, Group calls for armed protest against proposed mosque, Sep 12, 2016) An email from Chair Keith Ellis from Sep 12 declared that the cancellation was prompted by “social media postings evidencing hostilities in the community” (Maurice Carter, “Best way to extinguish a fuse is to never light it [Column], Newton: All on Georgia, Sep 13, 2016).

In the evening hours of September 13, around a dozen protesters assemble on the corner of the Covington Square facing the historic courthouse. Some of them are armed, others are displaying signs and shirts with messages such as “Unite against Islam, stop the Islamic immigration refugee invasion now!”, “God hates Islam” and “Allah is not God, Muhammad is NOT his messenger.” Participants quoted in the papers appear to be mostly from outside Newton County. Jim Stachowiak of Evans, Georgia, is quoted: “It’s a declaration of war against United States of America … Their ultimate goal is to impose Sharia law” (Cleve R. Wootaon Jr., “Georgia officials were set to approve a new mosque--until an armed militia threatened to protest,” The Washington Post, Sep 14, 2016). Stachowiak is a known anti-immigrant activist with a history of incendiary action. In spring 2016 he was part of the anti-Islam rally alongside infamous Qur’an-burning preacher Terry Jones from Florida (James Salzer, “Georgia Capitol police put out alert on gun-toting, anti-Islam rally,” AJC, April 11, 2016). A small group of counter-protesters gather in front of the court house across from the protesters. They are holding signs with messages in support of religious freedom. Kendra Millerd, a Newton County resident, says, “I am personally Christian and we believe defending other people’s rights to worship will keep our right to worship safe as well” (Mers Lutz, Protesters take opposing sides on proposed Newton mosque, www.b985.com, Sep 13, 2016)

The same group of protesters is back on the square a week later on September 20 for the regular meeting of the county commissioners. Standing on the opposite side of the historic square across from the historic courthouse are two dozen counter-protesters who have come together for a “Rally in Support of Religious Freedom.” The commissioners only address routine business at their meeting. The moratorium is not taken up for debate, although District 1 Commissioner John Douglas is quoted after the meeting as having favored another 30-day extension of the moratorium (Alice Queen, “Moratorium expires; Douglas says more time was needed,” Rockdale Citizen, Sep 21, 2016). Without any action taken by the commission, the moratorium expires the next day on September 21. Chairman Ellis says that the decision to let the moratorium expire is “not an endorsement either way on the moratorium, simply it is expiring” (Deidra Dukes, “Moratorium on places of worship expires, clears way for mosque in Newton County,” Fox5 Atlanta, Sep 20, 2016). CAIR-GA issues a press release the next day that it is withdrawing its request for a federal investigation. The press release also states that “Imam Mohammed Islam, leader of Masjid At-Taqwa, has been holding private meetings with church and community members on a nearly-weekly basis, and plans to continue doing so before starting construction of the cemetery and moque” (CAIR Press Release Sep 21, 2016). Despite this resolution, international press coverage follows the expiration of the moratorium (Matthew Teague, “Armed ‘3%’ militia fights against proposed mosque in tiny Georgia town,” The Guardian, Oct 13, 2016; Ali Younes, “American Muslims brace for the worst after US election, Aljazeera, Nov 7, 2016).

After the Moratorium

On Tuesday, October 4, 2016, District 1 Commissioner John Douglas requests the county consider changing the the county’s ordinance for cemeteries to require “leak-proof” caskets and vaults. He suggests modeling such an ordinance on one adopted in Bibb County, Georgia, in 2008. Current Georgia law does not stipulate embalming bodies and burial in a vault or casket. The planning commission is slated to meet on October 25 to review the cemetery zoning ordinance and make its recommendation on the question of requiring caskets. Current zoning requirements in Newton County do not require caskets in cemeteries. The closest “green burial” cemetery is Honey Creek Woodlands at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in neighboring Rockdale County. Emails from beginning of the controversy in August 2016 reveal that local opponents had contacted commissioners with concerns over contamination from the cemetery by comparing it to environmental problems the county had experienced prior with a leaking landfill (Chris Joyner, “Fear of the dead one of the many fringe ideas fueling mosque debate,” AJC, Oct 27, 2016). The county’s planning board eventually rejects Douglas’ proposal at its meeting on Tuesday, October 25.

STOP the Mosque in Newton County rebrands itself as SONG Alliance to continue its opposition to the cemetery project.Two spokespersons for the group, Tiffany Humphries and Bobby Stokes, report that they have retained support of a law firm from Newnan, GA, “to help them ensure that all laws and ordinance that apply to developments the size of the proposed mosque are followed” (Alice Queen, “SONG Alliance working for oversight of mosque development,” Rockdale Citizen, Nov 10, 2016). Humphries says, “We felt our voices weren’t really being heard. … CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations), the militia, neither of those represent what we are” (ibid.). A fundraiser is held on Saturday, November 19, at Academy Spring Park in Covington to cover legal costs.

Cooperation continues between Newton County residents and and members of Masjid At-Taqwa. On February 22, 2017, representatives from the communities meet at the Oxford College Dining Hall for an informal gathering to learn more about the progress with the cemetery project. An access road to the cemetery property is built in spring 2017 and a small number of burials take place. The At-Taqwa community invites its neighbors around the cemetery property as well as interested residents to a meet-and-greet event on Saturday, April 21, 2017. Lunch is served. The gathering is preceded by a service event that is part of the Great American Cleanup, locally organized by Keep Covington and Newton Beautiful (KCNB). More than 100 volunteers participate in a cleanup of the roadsides around the cemetery property. Three Oxford students who participated in the event later publish an op-ed piece about their experience in a local newspaper (Lyn Pace, “Students share experience with Great American Cleanup,” [Column] The Covington News, May 21, 2018).

Last Updated

August 29, 2019

Collection

Citation

“Newton County, GA,” U.S. Mosque Controversies, accessed January 20, 2022, https://usmc.ecdsomeka.org/items/show/3.

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