Sterling Heights, MI

image_03_press-conference.jpg

Description

A documented account of Case No. MI_06, occurring in Sterling Heights, MI, 48310 from 2015 to 2019

Creator

Stewart Zelnick

Year

2015

Outcome

approved (with restrictions; settlement after initial denial and DOJ lawsuit)

Narrative

In a meeting on August 13, 2015, the planning commission for the city of Sterling Heights heard a proposed request for a special approval land use (SALU) to build a mosque for about 325 worshippers along 15 Mile Road. The SALU applicant, Jaafar Chehab, represented the American Islamic Community Center (AICC) in a project to build a house of worship on five adjoining lots in an area that was zoned for single-family homes. A staff report from the City’s Planning Office recommended the Planning Commission approve AICC’s SALU application because it met the city’s zoning ordinance conditions. After a total of 50 residents had spoken against the mosque plan--with only 7 speaking in support--the planning commission voted 6-1 to postpone the decision and further review the case before its next scheduled meeting on September 10 (Felton, 2016).

Local news outlets reported that after the initial planning commission meeting, residents began to hold street protests. Protesters included members of the local Chaldean community, a group of Iraqi Christians, who had migrated to Sterling Heights in significant numbers because of the religious and ethnic persecution suffered following the deterioration of security conditions in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Residents lined 15 Mile Road with crosses, American flags, and signs that said “Wrong Place” and “No Mosque” (Hundreds of Sterling Heights residents turn out, 2015). Petitions circulated urging city planners to deny the special land use provision for the mosque. Residents voiced similar concerns  about traffic, noise, and overflow parking at the August 18 meeting of the city council (Delaney, 2015). In addition to lawful complaints, Islamophobic comments could be heard as well.

The protests against the mosque project overlapped with the local election season during which the mosque project became a wedge issue. Mayor Michael Taylor, who found himself in a contested re-election campaign, made contradictory remarks. “"My heart breaks for the Chaldeans in Iraq and throughout the world who are being terrorized by Islamic terrorists," Taylor wrote on his Facebook page. "I will do everything in my power to protect, support and defend the Chaldean population in Sterling Heights. I have nothing to do with the mosque and don’t want it built there"” (Hijazi, 2015, September 3). The post was later deleted and the mayor sought to clarify that his opposition was based solely on concerns over zoning issues (ibid.).

Following these protests, the planning commission denied the Muslim community’s SALU application in a unanimous 9-0 vote at a meeting on September 10, 2015 while protesters rallied in front of city hall (Snell, 2015).  After the vote, comments from residents included comparisons of ISIS and boos to the Muslim leaders (ibid.).  After this denial, the Sterling Heights City Council refused to review the mosque’s petition stating that final authority to approve SALU applications lay with the city’s planning commission (“Mosque Issue,” 2015)).

On August 10, 2016,  the American Islamic Community Center filed a complaint under RLUIPA against the Sterling Heights Planning Commission. Nearly a week later on August 16, the Sterling Heights Planning Commission publicly denied any bias against the community. The city issued a statement that “Sterling Heights is an inclusive community and welcomes diversity through its many programs and events” (Terry, 2016).  Two days after this public statement, however, it was revealed that Sterling Heights Planning Commissioner Jeff Norgrove had made anti-Muslim comments via a Facebook post (Harb, 2016).

In December of 2016, the Department of Justice filed a suit against the Sterling Heights Planning Commission, alleging the commission had violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The complaint alleged the city had discriminated against the Muslim community on the basis of religon. Moreover, the DOJ argued that the reasons the city had given for its denial of the application, such as a concern over the height of the mosque’s spires, had imposed an unnecessary burden on AICC’s religious exercise (Hicks, 2017)..  At a contentious public meeting on February 21, 2017, the Sterling Heights City Council voted to settle the suits and to enter into a federal consent decree that would allow the mosque to be built (Hotts, M.). Although the full terms of the settlement were not made public, representatives of AICC and U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade stated at a joint press conference the morning after the city council meeting that issues over parking and noise had been resolved. The AICC also had agreed to reduce the height of the spires from 66 to 61 ft. The settlement of the DOJ case did not include monetary payments but the city agreed to pay $350,000 toward its insurance deductible to offset costs AICC had incurred for its suit against the city.  Under the terms of the settlement the city did not admit to any wrongdoing but was required to revisit its nondiscrimination policies and agree to RLUIPA training (Fournier and Hicks, 2017).

The tumultuous events at the city council meeting of February 21 formed the basis of a lawsuit against the City of Sterling Heights by the American Freedom Law Center (AFLC) seeking to invalidate the settlement. Following shouts of “terrorist” and repeated interruptions by members of the public, the city council had restricted public comments and removed one resident from the room (Victor, 2017). The AFLC’s lawsuit was filed on behalf of several Sterling Heights residents, including the aforementioned City Planning Commissioner Jeff Norgrove. It included allegations that the city had violated the Equal Protection Act, the Open Meetings Act, and citizens’ First Amendment rights. AFLC also filed an injunction seeking to halt construction. “Regardless of Defendants’ purpose for entering into the Consent Judgment and for the Mayor’s actions at the City Council meeting, the effect of such actions conveys a message of approval of Islam,” the complaint read. “A reasonable observer would conclude that this favors the adherents of Islam over those who are not adherents of Islam” (Youkhana v. City of Sterling Heights [ED MI, filed 3/13/2017]).

In late June, a federal judge rejected the injunction against the mosque (“Judge Rejects Injunction,” 2017) and, more than a year later in August of 2018, a federal judge ruled in favor of the city (“Judge Rules in Favor of City,” 2018).  The AFLC’s appeal to the Sixth U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati was unanimously dismissed by a three-judge panel in August of 2019. Siding with the city, the ruling affirmed that the city council’s restrictions on comments regarding religion to issues in which religion is relevant to zoning considerations such as potential noise disturbance from amplified calls to prayer had not infringed on residents’ constitutional rights (Ramirez, 2019). The AFLC’s website indicates that the group filed a petition for a rehearing en banc in August 2019 but does not offer any updates on the current status. Similar, the WorldNetDaily, an extremist group according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, reported that the case would eventually be taken up by the Supreme Court, but no such verification has been possible thus far (“American City’s Ban on Criticism of Islam,” 2019).

Collection

Citation

Stewart Zelnick, “Sterling Heights, MI,” U.S. Mosque Controversies, accessed December 5, 2021, https://usmc.ecdsomeka.org/items/show/32.

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