Faced with a possible federal investigation and the threat of a lawsuit, Kennesaw officials may reconsider a decision to block a mosque from operating in a local shopping center.
In the latest in a series of metro Atlanta mosque controversies, the Kennesaw City Council Monday rejected a proposal to allow the mosque, even though the planning commission and city staff recommended approval. The action came after some residents expressed concerns about Muslims worshiping in the area.
Representatives of the mosque say they’ve spoken to the U.S. Department of Justice about what they see as blatant discrimination in violation of federal law. The department has intervened in similar cases across the country, including decisions by Lilburn and Alpharetta to deny mosque expansions. Under federal pressure, those cities ultimately approved the expansions.
“We are reviewing the information provided to us” about the Kennesaw mosque, a Justice Department spokeswoman said.
Kennesaw Mayor Mark Mathews said he does not believe the City Council “intentionally discriminated in any manner.” But he said the council may revisit its decision and will discuss the issue at its Dec. 10 work session.
“I believe the council voted for what they believe is in the best interest of the city based on the information they had available to them on that night,” Mathews said.
Amjad Taufique, spokesman for the proposed Suffa Dawat Center in the Kennesaw Commons shopping center on Jiles Road, said the mosque had agreed to parking and other restrictions proposed by Kennesaw officials. By a 4-1 vote, the City Council rejected the mosque anyway.
Taufique believes unfounded fear of Muslims influenced the city’s decision. The vote came amid a public outcry over the mosque. Many residents expressed concerns about traffic, parking and other problems that could result from the mosque. But others cited concerns about Sharia law and terrorism.
“We have heard so many bad things about the Islamic religion, about Shariah law and you see it on TV, and we’re scared of you,” one woman said at a public hearing, according to the Marietta Daily Journal. “I’ll tell you I’m scared to death of you.”
“I think there was a lot of fear of the unknown,” Taufique said in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “A lot of people have not met Muslims before.”
Taufique said 15 to 20 local Muslim families have expressed interest in worshiping at the proposed mosque. The 2,200-square-foot space would host short prayer services five times a day, plus a full service on Friday afternoon. He said the prayer services would draw up to 20 people, while 60 to 80 would worship on Friday afternoons.
The city asked the group to limit participation to 80 people and they agreed. They also agreed to restrict the number of parking spaces they’d use and to reserve prime parking spots for surrounding businesses.
Doug Dillard, an attorney representing the proposed mosque, noted the City Council allowed a Christian church to operate in shopping center last July. He’s recommended his clients take their case to court. Among other things, he said the city violated a provision of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
That law, passed by Congress in 2000, prohibits zoning laws that discriminate on the basis of religion or unreasonably limit religious assemblies or structures within a jurisdiction.
Pierce, the Justice Department spokeswoman, said a majority of cases the department has pursued under the law have involved discrimination against Christian churches or schools.
In the first 10 years of the law, only about 15 percent of Justice Department cases involved mosques or Islamic schools. But in the last four years, more than a quarter of its investigations have involved such facilities.
Two of those cases involved metro Atlanta mosques. In 2009 the Lilburn City Council denied the rezoning request of a small mosque on Lawrenceville Highway that wanted to build a new 20,000-square-foot facility. The mosque filed a federal lawsuit, and the Justice Department launched an investigation. Two years later the city granted the mosque’s request to expand.
In 2010, Alpharetta denied another mosque expansion Rucker Road. The mosque filed a lawsuit, and the Justice Department investigated. A federal appeals court later ordered the parties to try to negotiate a settlement. The mosque later agreed to downsize its expansion, and the new facility is now under construction.
Taufique believes news reports of atrocities committed in the name of Islam have given people a warped view of the religion.
“We’re going to teach our kids how to pray, how to be good neighbors, how to concentrate on their education and be supportive of those who need help,” he said.
A native of Pakistan, Taufique has lived in Cobb County since 1989. His children were born and raised here. And he’s not alone. About 16 percent of Kennesaw’s 32,000 residents were born in another country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“We’ve been in this community for years,” Taufique said. “We’re peaceful, law-abiding citizens.”
Mayor Mathews only votes in case of a tie and did not vote on the mosque issue. He said he is very familiar with the federal law, and “the council made every effort to treat the applicant as if they were any other business.”
Nonetheless, Mathews believes the council will reconsider its decision.
“I am confident that the issue will be revisited in the very near future and that Kennesaw will once again be recognized as a family friendly city and remain a great place to live, work, play, learn and worship,” he said.
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