Last Sunday was a historic and happy day in DeSoto County, Mississippi. The area’s first church, the House of God of Abraham, broke ground in the town of Horn Lake. While the event was celebrated, it was also a relief to the builders of the mosque, who were forced to sue last year after city officials – prompted by persecution of Muslims – deny them to empower them.
The ACLU, the ACLU of Mississippi, and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP, the church and its founders argued in a 2021 lawsuit that the zoning decision violated the First Amendment, which prohibits secession the same belief in discrimination, and Faith. Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal law that provides maximum protections for religious groups seeking to establish a place of worship or use property for other religious purposes. In a major victory, our client quickly won a consent decree (a court order that the parties agree to) requiring the city to agree to their construction site plan and prohibit discrimination. to them.
But that didn’t stop Horn Lake from trying again to restrict our clients’ right to develop their property. In April, our client applied for a use-permit to establish an Islamic cemetery next to the mosque. Although the city’s Planning Commission staff “strongly and vigorously” recommended that the proposal be approved, some commissioners disagreed. Echoing the negative sentiments expressed nearly a year earlier by a city alderman who voted against the church’s site plan, one planning commissioner complained, “It seems Muslims from all over the country will come to Horn Lake to bury their dead.”
Only after we intervened, again, and reminded the city that it must comply with the First Amendment, RLUIPA, and the consent decree, the Planning Commission voted 4-3 to recommend approval of the permit. . And last week, the Board of Aldermen voted in favor of the recommendation, ensuring that the mosque can offer mass funerals and burials for the local Muslim community.
The Horn Lake case is not the only recent incident in which religious minorities or churches have faced oppressive barriers in local administrations. Sometimes, as in Horn Lake, the malice is so clear and unmistakable. In others, the bias is more veiled, laced with unfounded – and unsupported – allegations that cause problems with parking, traffic or noise.
This past summer, the ACLU and the ACLU of Rhode Island participated in a lawsuit against the Horn and Cauldron, Church of the Earth, a small Wiccan church in Coventry, Rhode Island. Wicca is a religion, and church services, educational classes, and other faith-related activities focus on the relationship between the earth and the divine. Like Horn Lake, Coventry Planning Commission staff recommended that our client’s international permit application be approved, stating that the application met all requirements and that “the church has been operating in accordance with in the country, the Department of Planning and Zoning has not received any complaints since the establishment of the church.”
However, during a public meeting, members of Coventry’s Regional Review Board refused to accept the agreement, citing concerns about parking (more parking by the church for visitors) and unreasonable allegations about fire safety (the church follows all fire. -safety rules, and installations in accordance with the recommendations of the Fire Marshal). When we got involved, it was clear that city officials either didn’t know or didn’t care about their obligations under RLUIPA, let alone under the First Amendment. Earlier this month, in response to our request, the local board issued the church’s permit.
Unfortunately, some border discrimination issues are not resolved quickly. In 2016, the Thai Meditation Association of Alabama, a Buddhist religious organization, filed a lawsuit after the City of Mobile blocked its attempts to develop a meditation center on the 100-acre property. . It was argued that the city’s refusal to approve the zoning bowed to the community’s hostility to Buddhism – to some, an alien religion. The case dragged on for several years, with the court ruling that city officials had misrepresented, violated local ordinances, and failed to consider the religious nature of the proposed use. , and “correcting the reasons for refusal of planning permission,” including by recording false meeting minutes. As the lawsuit continues, the ACLU and other civil rights and civil rights groups filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit , to support the Group’s claims.
Even if the Conference wins, however, the cost will be high, as we have seen with our own clients. Challenging discriminatory zoning decisions often requires religious groups to tap into limited financial reserves. In addition, every day that land allocation permits are rejected, it is another day that religious groups or places of worship are prohibited from using their faith through fundamental means. And because the zoning issues are deeply rooted and tied to the local community, the frustration and hostility of the leader against religious-minority candidates faces discriminatory objections at home. .
That’s why we will continue to defend the right of all religions — especially those that are foreign to some and unpopular to others — to be treated unfairly in quota systems. It’s not just the law; the right thing to do.