Sterling Heights faces federal lawsuit over denial of zoning approval for mosque

Justice Department filed lawsuit Thursday against Sterling Heights

STERLING HEIGHTS, Mich. – The Justice Department filed a lawsuit Thursday against Sterling Heights, alleging that the city violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 when it denied special land use approval to allow the American Islamic Community Center Inc. to build a mosque on five adjoining parcels of land located in the city.

The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Michigan, alleges that Sterling Heights discriminated against the AICC on the basis of religion when it refused to approve the land use request to allow the AICC to build a mosque.

The complaint further alleges that the denial imposed a substantial burden on the AICC’s religious exercise.

The AICC, currently located in Madison Heights, sought to build in Sterling Heights because the location is more convenient for its members and its current space has become inadequate for its religious, educational and social needs. The complaint alleges that its current facility is overcrowded during important religious observances and lacks space for educational activities, youth activities and special events.

"The Constitution protects the rights of religious communities to create the institutions and physical spaces they need to observe and practice their faith free from discriminatory barriers," said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division. "The Justice Department will continue to aggressively protect the rights of all communities to live, pray and worship free from religious discrimination and substantial burdens in local land use decisions."

"The law prohibits the government from discriminating on the basis of religion or imposing a substantial burden on the exercise of religion when making land use decisions," said Barbara L. McQuade, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. "We are alleging that Sterling Heights discriminated against the American Islamic Community Center on the basis of religion and placed a substantial burden on the community’s ability to exercise its religion by denying approval to build a mosque. We filed this lawsuit to protect the rights of all of our citizens to freely practice their religion and have a place to gather with members of their community."

The complaint is an allegation of unlawful conduct. The allegations must still be proven in federal court.

The city of Sterling Heights released the following statement:

"Sterling Heights has a solid reputation for inclusiveness and tolerance reflected in a wide variety of places of worship across the City, including two existing Mosques, a Sikh Temple, a Buddhist Temple, Christian churches of various denominations and a BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir. Sterling Heights is a community that has and continues to welcome diversity through many programs and events. For many years, the city has been known in Metro Detroit as a premier community—in large part because of its diverse population representing a wide variety of cultures, ethnicities and race. One of Sterling Heights' most well-attended annual events is the ever-popular Cultural Exchange, wherein thousands of residents gather every year to celebrate and share their heritage with one another through food, dancing, art displays and other activities.

Sterling Heights will continue to foster faith-based inclusiveness and understanding with local partners including our city's school districts, religious organizations and other community groups. Sterling Heights was the first City in Macomb County to join Welcoming Michigan, an organization representing new refugees and immigrants who have chosen Sterling Heights as their new home. We continue to work closely with Welcoming Michigan to develop new programs tailored to inclusiveness as well as promoting education and understanding of the various cultures within our City. As stated in the City's 2030 Vision Statement; Sterling Heights is a vibrant, inclusive community for residents and businesses that is safe, active, progressive and distinctive. Inclusiveness will continue to be a guiding principle in all that we do. As such, the City has been and continues to be interested in collaborating with the American Islamic Community Center (AICC).

With the above in mind, the City has cooperated fully with the Department of Justice in this matter, and is surprised and disappointed in its decision to initiate this lawsuit at this time. The City maintains that the AICC application for special approval land use to construct a mosque was considered and denied by the City's Planning Commission based on established land use criteria including the incompatibility with adjoining uses, insufficient parking, as well as overall size and height of the building, and not emotional feelings tied to religious beliefs either for or against the applicant. The City welcomes the AICC along with any other religious groups to Sterling Heights and we will continue an open dialog to address areas of disagreement with respect to land use.

Knowing this matter involves litigation, the City will not be commenting any further publicly."

The case was brought by the department’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. attorney’s office of the Eastern District of Michigan.

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About the Author:

Derick is the Lead Digital Editor for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.