Across the Country, the Federal Government Fights For Muslim Worship Spaces [Updated]

The government of the United States is suing the town of St. Anthony, Minnesota, a Twin Cities suburb with a population a little over 8,000, to force the town to allow development of an Islamic center in an area reserved for industrial development. It is a minor news story, but one that sheds light on broader legal and cultural trends. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports:

The federal government on Wednesday sued the small north-metro city of St. Anthony, contending that its City Council violated federal law in 2012 by rejecting a proposed Islamic center. …

“An injustice has been done,” U.S. Attorney Andy Luger said at a news conference in Minneapolis. “I will not stand by while any religious group is subject to unconstitutional treatment that violates federal civil rights laws.”

Actually, DOJ happily stood by when the city previously denied a Christian group the use of the same space. Mr. Luger didn’t mention that in his pretentious announcement.

The lawsuit alleges that the council’s decision to deny the Abu Huraira Islamic Center the right to establish a worship center in the basement of the St. Anthony Business Center violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act passed by Congress in 2000.

Like me, you probably have never heard of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. I haven’t studied it, but, according to the DOJ’s web site, it prohibits zoning laws that “treat churches or other religious assemblies or institutions on less than equal terms with nonreligious institutions.” So it may actually apply here. Although, of course, no one worried about that when a Christian group was being turned down.

Apparently the Religious Land Use statute is being used by the federal government around the country to force acceptance of Islamic centers, contrary to local zoning regulations:

It marks the first time federal prosecutors have sued a Minnesota city citing the law, although the Justice Department has filed similar suits elsewhere in the country on behalf of Islamic centers, according to a U.S. attorney’s office spokesman.

So what is going on here? Why did St. Anthony turn down the application to use the property in question as an Islamic center?

In June 2012, the council rejected Abu Huraira’s proposal, concluding that a religious and cultural center was incompatible with the site’s light-industrial zoning. …

On Wednesday, St. Anthony officials continued to defend the council’s action, saying that the rejection was based purely on zoning issues. It “was not based on discrimination at all,” said City Attorney Jay Lindgren.

“Religious uses of any type are allowed in the vast majority of the city,” he said. “They are just not allowed in the roughly five percent of the city reserved for industrial uses. … An industrial zone is designed to create jobs and be an economic engine.”

Once upon a time, that would have been considered a reasonable zoning decision. But now, the full weight of the federal government–that is, the Obama administration–has come down on the side of Islam. And Islam only:

Lindgren said that the city denied another Christian organization’s request in the past few years that was similar to that of the Islamic center.

It isn’t hard to understand what is going on here. While I wish the town of St. Anthony well, it is pretty obvious that they will be ground underfoot by the powers that be, i.e., Eric Holder’s Department of Justice. Not because the administration has any particular regard for religion in general, as Christians and Jews can readily attest–just look at the Obamacare regulations. Rather, because the administration wants to display favoritism toward Islam.

If an administration could be shown to consistently favor one religion over others, would that constitute a violation of the First Amendment? Of course. But, as with so many other Obama administration scandals, long before the judicial system could even begin to address the issue on its merits, the malefactors will be long gone.

UPDATE: While the U.S. Attorney’s office singled out “Islamic centers” as the beneficiaries of federal action under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a knowledgeable reader who works for the Becket Fund says that DOJ has actually been even-handed in applying the statute:

I hold no brief for the federal government – the Becket Fund is the firm that beat DOJ at the Supreme Court in the Hobby Lobby case last Term and in the Hosanna-Tabor case two years before that. And we have a number of other religious liberty lawsuits pending against DOJ right now, including the Little Sisters of the Poor and Wheaton College cases.

So I am not writing because I think DOJ does a good job protecting religious freedom—far from it. But RLUIPA land use litigation is one area where DOJ gets it largely right. If you look at this somewhat incomplete list, you will see that DOJ has a pretty good cross-section of religious land use cases, including Jewish, Christian, and Muslim houses of worship:

http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/hce/caselist.php#rluipa

DOJ has taken the side of rabbinical schools in Rockland County, NY, and Baptist churches in Arizona, among many others. So it is inaccurate to characterize DOJ’s RLUIPA work as focusing only or primarily on Muslims, as your post does. And since this is one area of religious liberty law where DOJ gets it mostly right, I don’t think you will advance the religious liberty of any group – Christians, Jews, Muslims, or non-believers – by painting an inaccurate picture of how RLUIPA works, or how it has been enforced. In fact you are more likely to increase your readers’ opposition to religious liberty statutes like RLUIPA that are good for our country, not least because they restrict government power.

… I’ve litigated RLUIPA cases across the country, frequently on behalf of Christian and Jewish houses of worship, but on occasion also Muslim or Buddhist ones.

Knowledgeable criticism is always welcome, so thanks. If our reader is correct, and he is obviously knowledgeable, it was coincidence that there was no legal action when the city turned down a similar request from a Christian group. Or, more likely, the Christians never complained, while in this instance, Minnesota’s Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations asked DOJ to investigate.

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