The center asked the city council for permission to build a 12,032-square-foot mosque and a 1,910-square-foot community hall on the properties. But in May 2010, the council unanimously voted to deny the application as members reminded the center it had said in a 2004 zoning request it would not seek any more expansions.
The Islamic center sued the city, alleging discrimination and violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which forbids governments from imposing substantial burdens on a congregation’s exercise of religion. In January 2012, Senior U.S. District Judge J. Owen Forrester dismissed the suit, finding the city did not violate the law.
On Wednesday, a lawyer for the Islamic center was joined by a U.S. Justice Department attorney in asking the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn Forrester’s decision.
The center’s lawyer, Douglas Dillard, told the three appeals court judges that the congregation’s ability to practice religion has been restricted by the city council’s vote to deny the center’s expansion. “The decision the city made was clearly arbitrary and capricious,” he said.
The Justice Department’s Nathaniel Pollock told the judges that the city had illegally discriminated against the Islamic center when it denied the application. The mosque’s proposed expansion falls within the mid-range of comparative worship facilities in the city, he said.
Scott Busby, a lawyer for Alpharetta, said the city did not discriminate against the Islamic center. He called the dispute “a run-of-the-mill zoning case” in which Alpharetta “has tried to be fair and impartial.”
The majority of the Islamic center’s issues can be fixed by renovating the existing facilities’ roof, heating and air conditioning system, floors and bathrooms, Busby said. “There’s no substantial burden” on the congregation’s ability to practice religion, only “inconveniences.”
The 2000 religious land use act does not allow for unfettered growth, Busby said. “If you buy a four-acre site, you’re not going to build an airport on it. … There’s a question of degree.”