Emails reveal panic over proposed Newton mosque

Hundreds of concerned citizens lined up earlier this month in Covington to speak at two town hall meetings to discuss plans to build a mosque and cemetery in Newton County. CURTIS COMPTON /CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

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Hundreds of concerned citizens lined up earlier this month in Covington to speak at two town hall meetings to discuss plans to build a mosque and cemetery in Newton County. CURTIS COMPTON /CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

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Two weeks before angry opposition to a proposed mosque in Newton County made national news, local leaders and their constituents exchanged confused, sometimes panicked, emails about the project, a review of county emails reveals.

Newton County commissioners received and sent dozens of emails about the proposed mosque, beginning Aug. 9 when a local newspaper posted a short story about it online. The emails, released under Georgia's open records laws, show commissioners were caught unaware of the project and struggling to come to grips with local reaction.

While some residents urged commissioners not to meddle, an email sent Aug. 11 to Commissioner Nancy Schulz was typical.

“I live very near this sight (sic) and I am extremely AGAINST this being approved,” the emailer wrote, urging Schulz and the rest of the commission to block the development.

Schulz’s reply was diplomatic, thanking the constituent for her email and noting that the mosque was not on the commission’s Aug. 16 agenda.

“However, citizens are always welcome to comment during the citizen comment portion of the meeting which is typically at the end of the meeting,” Schulz wrote. She forwarded the response to her fellow commissioners, prompting a reply from Commissioner John Douglas.

“I have asked for it to be on the agenda,” he wrote.

In fact, Douglas, a staunch conservative, was incensed that he learned that the mosque was planned for his district from the local newspaper.

“How did something with the potential controversy like this get all the way to the newspaper without us knowing about it?” Douglas asked in email sent the same day the story broke to Commission Chairman Keith Ellis and interim County Manager Lloyd Kerr.

Douglas is not a stranger to controversy. Last year, the former state legislator was forced to apologize for a Facebook post many took as racist and misogynist.

Last month, Douglas, who declined to be interviewed, fanned the mosque controversy by suggesting in a local paper it could encourage the federal government to settle refugees in the county.

Federal law protects churches, commissioners told

Over the course of several days, Kerr struggled to explain the sequence of events while assuring the officials that the county had followed its normal processes. Kerr also warned commissioners that the U.S. Constitution and federal law both took a dim view of interfering with the construction of houses of worship.

“We must treat this no differently than the First Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, etc. or risk breaking federal law,” Kerr wrote in an email sent Aug. 13.

Kerr told commissioners that if a mosque met the zoning requirements and got the right permits, no public hearing is required for approval.

“It is important to remember that freedom to practice one’s faith is guaranteed in the Bill of Rights,” Kerr wrote. “This right is further protected by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act that prohibits local governments from burdening citizens desiring to use land for purposes of worship with regulations not required of other similar land uses.”

County development officials had been meeting with representatives of the mosque development for more than a year.

Plans include a church and a cemetery as well as longer range plans for a school and residences. However, the emails also indicate that Kerr — who heads the city’s development office as well as serving as interim manager — was not aware the proposed project was a mosque until very recently.

“I personally had no concrete knowledge that the project was a mosque until I spoke with my staff and reviewed the rendering following the meeting held on Aug. 8 with the engineer,” Kerr said in an Aug. 18 email. “My staff was not misleading me, rather, I asked the wrong questions.”

Heated local reaction

Responses to the news from Newton County residents were all over the map.

“Apparently no one in authority has asked who is actually sponsoring this endeavor,” an Aug. 14 email from a local conservative activist reads. “Saudi Arabia, perhaps? The Muslim Brotherhood? What will be taught there, Sharia Law?”

Others pleaded with commissioners to reject such insinuations and consider that the county is still trying to rebound from the effects of the Great Recession.

“Please do not allow us to be drawn into a lawsuit that we cannot afford. For crying out loud! We are making some progress here,” one resident wrote to Ellis. “Help us by refusing to allow a subset of hysterical people to prevent the legal use of property and the free exercise of religion.”

On Aug. 11, Ellis wrote back to a constituent opposing the mosque and confided that he was struggling with what to do.

“There is only one decision the board may face. The school, if they decide to build one, will need a conditional use permit. The mosque and cemetery do not require any approval. They can build them under the current zoning by law,” he wrote. “As Christians, we must be prayed up. We face spiritual warfare daily. I will attempt to do as Jesus would do.”

Ellis did not elaborate on what position Jesus might take on county zoning matters.

Hundreds of residents turned out Aug. 22 for back-to-back listening sessions, with most speakers opposing the development. The town hall meetings made national news, much of it unflattering and the mayors of Newton's five cities issued a public letter asking the county government to stop "embarrassing" them.

Some residents seek dialogue

This week, an quieter effort got under way to dialog with the Islamic community seeking to build the mosque. At least four commissioners and several mayors met in a series of meetings with Imam Mohammad Islam, spiritual leader of the Doraville-based Muslim community seeking to build the church.

“I know the meeting I was in was very productive. We were building a relationship of understanding,” Commissioner Schultz said. “They do not practice Sharia law. They are U.S. citizens. They deserve the rights and protections of any U.S. citizens.”

Schultz said the imam’s community was drawn to Newton County for the same reasons many people have moved there — available, cheap land.

“His church is a church of people of modest income. They wanted to be able to have land they could afford. Their primary focus is for a place to bury their dead in a respectful (way),” she said.

In a telephone interview this week, the imam said he is grateful for the chance to get to know the people of Newton County. So far, his impression is counter-intuitive.

“They are so welcoming,” he said. “I really thank God Almighty that he has given me the opportunity to meet these great people.

“This is why America is great,” he said.

The spiritual leader said he considers the fear some have shown to be “very normal.” He is convinced that as residents come to know his community, that will change.

“When you come with your heart, I believe that people will realize and the misconceptions and the fear will be gone,” he said.

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