The U.S. Department of Justice is suing a Virginia County for denying a key permit necessary for a Muslim congregation to build a mosque on land they already bought. The DOJ is alleging that the denial is a form of religious discrimination.
With no existing mosque in the Culpeper County, the congregation has been holding prayer services in a house near a used car dealership. According to the DOJ’s complaint, the house is too small for the Islamic Center of Culpeper’s (ICC) needs, and they entered into a contract to buy land in January 2016. The ICC, as part of their plans to erect a mosque, had to apply for a “pump and haul” sewage permit from Culpeper County. The County denied their application.
Court documents say that since 1992, Culpeper County has received 26 other applications for pump and haul permits, including nine from churches. All were approved.
The ICC submitted their permit application in February, which allegedly prompted one county leader to email various officials and local media, saying, “I understand the Islamic Center of Culpeper wishes to rehabilitate the existing home and use it on a weekly basisas a place of prayer. …..Hmmmmmmmmm….” This led to a meeting between ICC Director Mohammad Nawabe and a county planning director, where Nawabe was told he submitted an outdated application and had to fill out a new one. Nawabe was assured it would be approved
Between that meeting and the County Board meeting in April where the permit was to be voted on, Culpeper County citizens allegedly called and emailed the County with complaints about the mosque. “Much of the opposition contained comments that disparaged Muslims and made references to terrorism and the 9/11 attacks,” the DOJ’s lawsuit says.
The DOJ claims that the denial of the permit is effectively a restriction on the ICC’s development or use of land, which violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA). Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division said in a statement, “The Constitution and federal law specifically protect the freedom of religious communities to establish houses of worship.” Gupta said that the DOJ “will continue to work tirelessly to protect every person’s right to assemble for religious exercise.”
This is the second lawsuit that the DOJ has filed under the RLUIPA in the past month. In November, they sued a New Jersey town for denying zoning approval for a mosque that was being planned.
Culpeper County said in a statement obtained by LawNewz.com, “The County believes the recent lawsuit filed by the DOJ against the County is ill-informed and meritless. The County intends vigorously to defend its actions.” The County maintains that “[t]he issue regarding a permit for the permanent pump and haul of excrement is a health issue – not a religious one,” saying, “There presently is no bar to the Islamic Center of Culpeper using its property for religious gathering.”
In a letter to the DOJ last week, County Attorney Bobbi Jo Alexis said:
Absolutely no law or fact supports a complaint alleging that the County implemented a land use restriction that imposed a substantial burden on religious exercise or that discriminates against the Islamic Center of Culpeper (ICC) on the basis of religion or religious denomination in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The County feels strongly that the instant facts do not fall within the purview of RLUIPA.