Kennesaw, GA

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Description

A documented account of Case No. GA_06, occurring in Kennesaw, GA. 30144 in Cobb County from November 2014 to April 2015

Year

2014

Proposed Project

2200 sq. ft space in a strip mall, with two separate entrances for men and women; occupancy of maximum 150 people; expected amount for daily prayers is 10-20; 60-80 at peak Friday times; appropriate amount of parking spaces

Outcome

Denied, then approved

Narrative

Masjid Board Members Create Proposal

For members of the Kennesaw’s Muslim community, the closest masjid that they could attend was about a 30-minute drive. This meant an hour for commute alone, not including unanticipated traffic flow, in addition to the prayer service which lasts roughly another hour. For those in the community with workplace commitments or childcare obstacles, this meant missing what is considered the most important prayer in Islam: Jummah prayers. Jummah prayers are congregational prayers that take place on Fridays, in the way that Christians come together on Sundays. However, inaccessibility unfortunately made Kennesaw’s Muslim residents miss Jummah prayer. Five members of the community realized that they could seize the opportunity to establish a masjid in Kennesaw to make it easier for Muslim residents to attend congregational prayers (personal communication, March 1, 2019). They found a suitable space in a strip mall alongside other small businesses to convert into a storefront mosque.

Petition to City Council for Temporary Use Permit

Issues surrounding the permitting process for Masjid Suffah were numerous. Starting with meetings between Masjid officials and city councilmembers in early November and progressing through a city council meeting on November 17, the acceptance of the application was dragged out. The process had no precedent. Space in a similar shopping center had been let out to a Pentecostal Church less than six months prior (Brangham 2014, Dec 20). The board members of the masjid attended the city council meeting on November 17 during which public comment was invited. The board members remember the majority of queries at the meeting were about Islam and not about zoning issues (personal conversation, March 1, 2019). The city council decided the table the issue for two weeks until the next regularly scheduled meeting on December 1 and asked the applicants to have information meetings (public hearing) with their neighbors in the interim.

During the follow-up meeting of the city council on December 1st, the attorney acting on behalf of the city, Randall Bentley, asked the masjid if they were willing to agree to several stipulations, including a maximum Land Use permit of 24 months, a cap on the number of attendants and parking spaces, and a promise not to challenge the city legally under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which protects religious buildings like Masjid Suffah from discrimination under zoning and landmarking laws. The masjid agreed, and this amended motion was proposed by Councilmember Welsh and seconded by Council member Killingsworth. It failed by a 2-3 margin, with only Welsh and Killingsworth in support. The motion to retain the original plans for the masjid construction was then voted on and failed 4-1, with only Councilmember Welsh in favor.

Councilmember Welsh, the only initial “yes” vote and herself a devout Catholic, reported that after her “yes” vote, her private information, including her home address, Facebook, and pictures of her children had been released on a hate site. Despite “being rattled” by the negative attention, hate, and threats from her constituents (Brangham 2014, Dec 20).

Reversal of City Council Vote and Lawsuit

Exactly two weeks from the first vote, the original motion was passed unanimously, although not without significant difficulty. The threat of a lawsuit from the masjid and the potential involvement of a federal judge put significant pressure on the Council to rectify its actions. The additional fact of masjid officials being in contact with the Department of Justice, even unofficially, made it extremely politically fraught for the Council not to allow construction. Following the reversal, the masjid decided to sue the City Council to prevent further action from being taken against the masjid. Dillard, an attorney who has previously won similar cases in Alpharetta and Marietta, known as a religious freedom expert, submitted the filing on December 30th (Klepal 2015, Jan 1).

Public Protest

Some of the key issues community members brought up in the initial City Council Meeting on November 17, 2014, explored the idea of traffic congestion, availability of parking, community and business disturbances, and the masjid’s effects on the commercial activities at the shopping center. David Nicholas, a community member, argued, “It is a retail space and compatibility may be an issue. Section e-6 addresses adequate parking and 60-80 people will attend but will be there at various times during the day. If there are 127 parking spaces, that many people will be more than half of the available parking. Growth does not seem limited” (Kennesaw City Council Hearing, Nov 17, 2014, p.11). Maria Nicholas, the wife of David Nicholas, also addressed the issue of public disturbances that could be seen within areas like nursing homes. She posed questions regarding noise levels from traffic and the mosque itself that could be a potential hazard to the elderly (ibid.). Owners of several stores pondered the question of what the mosque would or would not bring to their businesses and the possibility. In response to the issues raised at the meeting, Attorney Dillard argued for the leasing of the permit due to the fact that zoning cannot be denied over the fear of traffic and anticipated parking issues (ibid.).

Several questions about the type of religious practice at the proposed masjid were voiced at the city council meeting on November 17 but resurfaced with greater intensity at the mandated public hearing Monday, November 24 (Galloway 2014, Dec 5). The subsequent city council meeting on December 1 did not allow public comment but protesters gathered outside city hall before the session with signs reading “Ban Islam,” and “Islam wants no peace.” Protesters also held American flags as well as the old Georgia state flag that includes the Confederate battle flag. Some protester openly carried firearms (ibid.)

Aftermath

The masjid’s journey extended far past issues of zoning and local xenophobia. Media attention at the local and national levels propelled this case into discussions of religious freedom and the true impact of the First Amendment. Reporting done by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Huffington Post, and PBS highlighted the importance of the Kennesaw case after a long battle against not only the city council but also against protestors from the Kennesaw area as well from areas farther away. After a difficult beginning, the mosque is now successful and has brought together the Muslim community of Kennesaw in even greater ways. Since the issues with city council, Masjid Suffah opened up the storefront mosque and members are currently finishing up interior development. They regularly hold daily worship sessions, including the Friday prayers. Other activities at the masjid include meals to mark the end of Ramadan fasting and donations to surrounding underserved communities.

Building a Permanent Space

Members of this masjid have initiated plans to build a large, permanent multi-purpose space of 3.5 acres and 200 parking spaces for both regular worship and for children to play. Zoning and budget affairs have already been worked out and architecture plans have been submitted to the city council. The project is also privately funded, making it difficult to predict when it will be completed. Masjd Suffah continues to face some of the same obstacles with parking concerns from residents and permit issues delaying construction.

Last Updated

August 23, 2019

Collection

Citation

“Kennesaw, GA,” U.S. Mosque Controversies, accessed January 20, 2022, https://usmc.ecdsomeka.org/items/show/8.

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