Fulton County, GA

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Description

A documented account of Case No. GA_05, occurring in Fulton County, GA. 30009 from May 2010 to September 2013

Proposed Project

Replace 2,500-square-foot worship facility with 12,032-square-foot mosque and 1910-square-foot fellowship hall on 4.2 acre property in residential area. Imam’s residence on adjacent property to remain the same.

Outcome

Center is approved to build a 6,300-square-foot mosque and a 1,600-square-foot fellowship hall, totaling approximately 57 percent of the original proposed area. Additional condition not to expand again for the next 15 years. Project is finished by 2016

Narrative

The Islamic Center of North Fulton (ICNF) is located in the city of Alpharetta, GA, north of Atlanta. The center was first created in 1998 when the congregation of 25 moved into a modest, ranch style home on a four-acre lot (Anti-Defamation League 2011, May 3). The group submitted a special use zoning application as a religious institution, although zoning requirements imposed on religious groups are not meant to be a proxy to deny the practice of First Amendment rights. This application was approved and the congregation moved into the home to utilize it as a worship space with condition that the congregation would not expand the worship structure. In 2004, the center added an adjacent property on Rucker Road for the imam to reside in through another special use permit application. At that time, the center was part of Fulton County and not under the jurisdiction of the city of Alpharetta. Both the mosque and imam’s residence were approved by the county’s Board of Commissioners. Prior to approval of the addition of the imam’s house, some members of the congregation met with neighbors in order to assuage their concerns about the expansion (Islamic Ctr v Alpharetta 2012, Jan 5). Furthermore, nearby Fairfax Homeowners Association wrote a letter to the Fulton County Board of Commissioners expressing their insistence that the addition of the imam’s residence be grandfathered in to the prior agreement of non-expansion (ibid.). The Board of Commissioners took this letter into consideration and approved the request with the same condition as the original 1998 approval that this structure as well would not expand in the future (ibid.).

A year later, the city of Alpharetta annexed the Islamic Center of North Fulton (Ellis 2010, Apr 26). By 2010, the congregation sought to renovate and expand the worship building to replace it with a much larger building at approximately 12,000 square feet and add a 1,900-square-foot multipurpose building (ibid.). This proposal was already scaled down from the congregation’s original desire to build 19,600 square feet in construction after neighbors expressed concern that the construction was too large (ibid.). The altered proposed-two-story main building would include a “gymnasium, library, administrative offices and prayer space” (ibid.). The congregation had grown enough that it was difficult to accommodate all members in the existing structure for any activities besides worship. Thus, the congregation wanted to have facilities for other purposes, such as offices and places to host community events. Although under the new jurisdiction of Alpharetta instead of Fulton County, the updated proposal was immediately met with pushback from the surrounding community. Neighbors in the surrounding residential area claimed that the proposed larger structure would not “fit in”, and they expressed concerns about increases in traffic, especially on Fridays when prayers have the highest turnout (ibid.). This was despite the fact that the center conducted a traffic report as part of their renovation proposal, and it found that services on Fridays will only add “about 52 roundtrips more at the peak hour, from 161 trips to 213 trips” (Hurd 2010, Mar 23).

Prior to appearing before a determining body, the ICNF hosted a community meeting on March 16th, 2010, only a few weeks before their appearance in front of the Alpharetta Planning Commission on April 1 and City Council on April 27 (Hurd 2010, Mar 23). This meeting and the scaling back of the center’s application did little to persuade the city to approve the application. On May 6th, 2010, the Alpharetta Planning Commission voted to recommend denial of the construction request in a 7-0 decision (Ellis 2010, Apr 26). During this meeting, the Planning Commission heard testimony that noted that the current facilities were not serving the congregation fully. One commission member, Will Gurley, described his decision by saying that the congregation’s previous commitment to not expand either the worship space or imam’s house when they were approved by Fulton County were “‘important [ones] that neighbors relied on’” (ibid.). The plan went to the Alpharetta City Council on May 24 with the recommended denial of plans (ibid.). Then, the City Council voted 6-0 to reject the expansion proposal (Fox 2011, May 9). The City Council denied the Special Use rezoning application by citing again that the center was not honoring its promise made years ago not to expand its facilities and by claiming that the congregation could still exercise its right to practice religion freely in its existing space.

In June of 2010, following the City Council decision, ICNF sued the City of Alpharetta for religious discrimination under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, or RLUIPA (U.S. Department of Justice 2012). This law prohibits municipalities from favoring certain religions over others and requires that such a decision that denies religious group requests based on zoning requirements are done in the least “restrictive way to accomplish a compelling government interest” (Fox 2011, May 9). About a year after the City Council’s decision, the federal Justice Department announced that it was investigating the city’s decision under RLUIPA (ibid.). In June of 2011 the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish non-government organization, filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Interfaith Coalition of Mosques in the U.S. District court for North Georgia (Anti-Defamation League 2011, May 3). This briefing sided with the ICNF, claiming that the city of Alpharetta unlawfully rejected its construction plan (ibid.). The case went to court, and “Senior U.S. District Judge J. Owen Forrester dismissed the suit” in January 2012 because the city supposedly did not violate the federal law (Rankin 2013, Feb 13). The City of Alpharetta was granted summary judgment, which meant the case was determined not to need a full trial.

Following this, the ICNF appealed to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the ICNF, criticizing the district court for using inappropriate standards to evaluate religious discrimination and “substantial burden” of religious exercise (U.S. Department of Justice 2012). The DOJ argued that ICNF effectively demonstrated that the permit denial substantially inhibited their religious exercise and the district court “should have examined all of the surrounding factors to determine whether religion was the motivating factor of the County's decision” (same as previous). The center’s plan of expansion was within the “mid-range of comparative worship facilities in the city”, which have been allowed to expand multiple times, noted Nathaniel Pollock from the federal Justice Department (Rankin 2013, Feb 13). However, the city claimed that they were not placing significant burdens on the ICNF to practice their religion or discriminating based on religious grounds, simply that they imposed “‘inconveniences’” in a routine zoning case (ibid.). Thus, a panel of three federal judges gave the city of Alpharetta and the ICNF 120 days to reach a settlement or the court would rule on the case (ibid.). This pattern of attributing all denials of the ICNF’s proposals to zoning requirements dates back to their original proposal, when a former city council member said that the case was unrelated to religion-- “‘If this were a Southern Baptist Church or a QuikTrip … it would not make any difference whatsoever’” (Ellis 2010, May 7). However, the amici brief also stated that the “proposed mosque compares favorably in terms of size and effect to the two churches located on the same road...these two churches located on the same road have ‘been allowed to expand multiple times’” (U.S. Department of Justice 2012).

In May 2013, the ICNF was vandalized by an unknown person, likely an elderly white man (according to witnesses) who wrote “London justice” and “Where is justice” in white paint on a sign at the entrance of the Center. The phrases seemed to be in response to the fatal attack of a British soldier by two Muslim extremists in east London just days earlier, which prompted anti-Muslim attacks in the UK. The Council on American-Islamic Relations asked for authorities to investigate the vandalism as a hate crime (Bikya News 2013, May 28).

In September of 2013, three years following the initial plans for expansion, extensive “court mediation” resulted in a “compromise” to expand the structure. This new request reduced the intended expansion size to two buildings totaling 7,900 square feet as opposed to the originally planned 12,000 square foot, single-building expansion. A Planning Commission member noted specifically that he voted against the previous request for expansion, but that he “[felt] good that both sides have worked in mutual agreement to provide something balanced for worshipers and residents.” On September 5th, the Alpharetta Planning Commission voted 5-1 in approval of this revised plan. The agreement included 25 conditions, including a requirement of a police officer to direct street traffic during Friday services, a security fence around the property to prevent vandalism, and an agreement to not build anything else for 15 years (Copsey 2013, Sep 8). The community held a fundraiser for the project in May 2014. There is little information regarding the physical construction of the expansion, but construction finished approximately in May of 2016.

Collection

Citation

“Fulton County, GA,” U.S. Mosque Controversies, accessed January 20, 2022, https://usmc.ecdsomeka.org/items/show/7.

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