WASHINGTON – The Justice Department filed a complaint today against the city of Lilburn, Ga., alleging that the city violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) when it rejected the Dar-E-Abbas Shia Islamic Center’s requests for rezoning to construct a mosque. Both parties have agreed to a consent decree that will be filed on Aug. 29, 2011.
The city twice rejected the Islamic Center’s applications to rezone property it owned to build a mosque in November 2009 and December 2010. The government’s lawsuit alleges that the city’s denials of the rezoning applications were based on the religious bias of city officials and to appease members of the public who opposed the construction of a mosque because of religious bias. The complaint further alleges that the city treated the Islamic Center differently than it treated non-Muslim religious groups that regularly have been granted similar rezoning requests.
The department notified the city of its intention to file a lawsuit for violations of RLUIPA in June 2011, and the city and the United States have been engaged in pre-suit negotiations to settle the lawsuit since that time. On Aug. 16, 2011, the city approved rezoning for the Islamic Center that was substantially similar to the rezoning request the Islamic Center made in 2010.
“Religious freedom is among our most fundamental rights. Under federal law, cities may not use their zoning laws to discriminate against religious groups seeking to build places of worship,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “The department acknowledges and commends the city’s decision to ultimately approve the rezoning, and it is pleased that the city has agreed to enter into a decree with the United States that helps ensure that freedom of religion in the United States is a reality for persons of all faiths.”
U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia Sally Quillian Yates said, “Religious freedom requires that local government decisions impacting the exercise of that freedom be free of discrimination. The city of Lilburn twice failed to approve rezoning permits to allow building a mosque, and the complaint alleges that the rejection was because the applicants are Muslims. We are pleased that the city is settling the lawsuit and that the rezoning issue is being resolved.”
Under the agreement, the city may not impose different zoning or building requirements on the Islamic Center or other religious groups, and will publicize its non-discrimination policies and practices. The city also agreed that its leaders, managers and certain other city employees will attend training on the requirements of RLUIPA. In addition, the city will adopt new procedures that clarify its complaint process for zoning and permitting decisions regarding houses of worship, and will report periodically to the Justice Department.
RLUIPA, enacted in 2000, prohibits religious discrimination in land use and zoning decisions. Persons who believe that they been subjected to religious discrimination in land use or zoning may contact the Housing and Civil Enforcement Section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division at 1-800-896-7743. More information about RLUIPA, including a report on the first 10 years of its enforcement, may be found at www.justice.gov/crt/about/hce/rluipaexplain.php .