The leaders of an Islamic center filed a lawsuit Wednesday against Sterling Heights after the city last year rejected their plans to build a mosque that was strongly opposed by many residents.
And the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan announced that her office and the Department of Justice are investigating whether the mosque was treated fairly.
In the federal lawsuit, the American Islamic Community Center accuses the city of being biased against Muslims, citing e-mails from city officials that talked about getting investigated the possibility of the mosque’s leaders being terrorists. In one e-mail, a police official asks whether the FBI can be contacted to see whether the mosque leaders are “on their radar.”
Last year, the planning commission of Sterling Heights voted 9-0 to reject building a mosque on 15 Mile between Ryan and Mound roads. City officials and residents have said their rejection was not based on bigotry, noting that the city already has a mosque, but over concerns that the location was not suitable for such a large building and could cause traffic problems.
The case is one of several that have come up in recent years across metro Detroit involving mosques facing stiff opposition from nearby residents. The Department of Justice last year filed a lawsuit against Pittsfield Township after it denied an Islamic school permission to be built.
Reached by the Free Press on Wednesday, Sterling Heights Mayor Michael Taylor would not comment. Sterling Heights’ Police Chief John Berg and City Planner Chris McLeod did not return messages seeking comment. Former Sterling Heights Police Chief Michael Reese did not comment.
Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said Wednesday: “The Department of Justice and U.S. Attorney’s Office have been conducting an independent investigation, and that investigation is ongoing.”
The lawsuit alleges that the constitutional rights of the mosque members were violated in denying the mosque. Residents who opposed the Shi’ite mosque have said the building would be in a residential area that would cause congestion and wasn’t suitable to the area around 15 Mile.
But the lawsuit said that some of the residential opposition was rooted in anti-Islam prejudice. At public meetings, some in Sterling Heights expressed concern about Islamic extremism; the tensions exposed strained relations between some in the Chaldean (Iraqi Catholic) community in Sterling Heights and metro Detroit Muslims.
“With a vociferous and racist member of the Planning Commission leading the charge, the Planning Commission voted to reject the site plan,” said the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit. “With no other choice, the American Islamic Community Center has filed this suit seeking equitable relief to build the Mosque and seeks damages as the City of Sterling Heights’ conduct violates, among other things, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act … and the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.”
The lead attorney filing the case on behalf of the mosque, currently based in Madison Heights, is Azzam Elder, once the deputy to former Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano.
“We all know of a time in our history when sentiment in America were anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-German, anti-Japanese, or anti-Black, and those times have forever stained on our history,” Elder said in a statement. “As defenders of the U.S. Constitution, we are confident that there will come a day when it will also be inconceivable to be anti-Muslim. This is why we filed this lawsuit, in order to continue the struggle of protecting the rights of all minority groups in America.”
Mayor Taylor has said previously that Sterling Heights respects diversity. About 23% of the residents of the city are immigrants, one of the highest percentages among cities in southeastern Michigan. It has a sizable Iraqi-American Christian community, some of whom escaped Islamic extremism in Iraq and had voiced worries about the mosque.
On Sept. 2 last year, Taylor wrote on Facebook: “I completely and unequivocally denounce any anti-Muslim bigotry.”
He added: “I will work with the AICC (American Islamic Community Center) to ensure they have a place to worship in our city.”
Taylor told the Free Press last year: “I urge all residents to be respectful and tolerant of each other. Regardless of the outcome, Sterling Heights must remain a place that is open and welcoming for people of all races, faiths, ethnicities, and backgrounds.”
Elder, though, said that “the City of Sterling Heights and its political leadership has had nearly one year to make good on its wrong. They’ve failed to uphold the constitutional rights of its Muslim residents.”
The lawsuit says that some mosque members have lived in Sterling Heights for decades and others have served in the U.S. military.
“I am proud to have served in Desert Storm as a Senior Airman for the United States Air Force,” said Khalil Abbas, who is a member of the Muslim Center. “My grandfather served in WWI and other family members served in other wars to protect the rights of all Americans. All I want is for the City of Sterling Heights to follow the U.S. Constitution, and protect my rights as a veteran and citizen.”
The lawsuit cites an e-mail sent Aug. 19 from a resident to city officials asking that the mosque leaders be vetted for possible extremism and terrorism.
City Planner Donald Mende then forwarded that e-mail, along with the names of mosque leaders, including its imam, to the police chief at the time, Reese. Reese then forwarded it to John Berg, then a captain and now Sterling Heights police chief, asking him to ask a contact at the FBI whether the mosque leaders are “on their radar.”
A spokesman for the Detroit FBI could not be reached late Wednesday for comment.
Contact Niraj Warikoo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-223-4792. Follow him on Twitter @nwarikoo