Feds Probing Bias Against Mosques in Local Zoning

Justice Department has opened at least eight investigations into land-use discrimination since May 2010.

By Seth Freed Wessler Sep 22, 2010

In the shadows of the raging controversy over New York’s Park51 Islamic cultural center, the Department of Justice is now monitoring at least eight instances of land use discrimination against mosques across the country.

Talking Points Memo reports:

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has begun monitoring eight separate cases of alleged discrimination against Muslims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) since May 2010, according to a report issued Tuesday.

"We see a spike, regrettably," said Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez in a speech before the American Constitution Society. A spokeswoman declined to name the individual investigations, but confirmed that the department was monitoring those cases and had not yet opened full investigations.

According to the New York Times:

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, whose initials are commonly pronounced Ruh-LOO-pa, was approved unanimously by Congress in 2000. Its chief sponsor was Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah.

The law sets a high bar for any government action that would impose zoning or other restrictions on a religious institution. Any such action must serve a "compelling government interest" while also being "the least restrictive means" of furthering that interest, the law says.

Discrimination against mosques has been reported in California, Illinois, New York, Tennessee and Wisconsin. It’s unknown whether these are sites of the DOJ’s inquiry.

But it’s clear that there’s been an uptick of campaigns against mosques nationally. TPM reports that in the last decade, "18 cases of alleged discrimination against Muslims have been monitored under RLUIPA…meaning DOJ has monitored almost as many situations in the past five months as it had in the previous nine and a half years."

Efforts to stop the construction or expansion of mosques are often couched in formal challenges about zoning or parking restrictions. The New York Times reports about a California mosque:

In a statement on the mosque protest in Temecula, William Rench, the senior pastor of the nearby Calvary Baptist Church, said, "Our primary concern is that the land adjacent to our property is wholly inadequate and unsuited for the proposed 25,000-square-foot Islamic worship center."

But, reports the Times:

The rest of the statement concerns Islam itself. "It seems logical to me that we would be opposed to Islam based on its fundamental teachings and on documented stories of the terror that radical Islam promotes," Mr. Rench wrote.

The anti-mosque wave mirrors a broader furor that took the country this summer and led to numerous acts of violence, vandalism and hate crimes against Muslims or people perceived to be Muslim.

Though the fire appears to have cooled to some extent, at least on the airwaves, challenges to the construction of Muslim religious spaces are likely to continue as anxieties about Islam crystallize.