Court hears arguments in Alpharetta mosque case

A federal judge will decide whether to rule on a lawsuit involving a mosque's expansion in Alpharetta before the case goes to trial.

Both sides appeared in U.S. District Court this month seeking a summary judgment in the case.

Attorneys for the city of Alpharetta and the Islamic Center of North Fulton presented arguments in a federal suit stemming from the city's denial of a request by the mosque to expand its facility on Rucker Road.

The case, filed in 2010, has drawn the attention of the U.S. Justice Department, which is conducting its own investigation under a federal law that requires local governments to show that zoning decisions against religious groups are the least restrictive way to accomplish a compelling government interest. The law also prohibits governments from making decisions favoring one religion over another.

"The mosque is arguing that the refusal to allow it to rebuild an adequate space on the site they own substantially burdens their ability to exercise their religion," said Andrea Jones, attorney for the Islamic Center.

The Alpharetta City Council voted 6-0 in May 2010 to reject plans by the center to tear down its 2,500-square-foot worship house and construct two buildings: a 1,900-square-foot multipurpose facility and a 12,000-square-foot, two-story main building.

During the 2010 zoning hearing, a crowd of 150 squeezed into the council chambers to hear several hours of arguments. Residents of surrounding subdivisions said the project was too big for the 4-acre lot and would make traffic worse on Rucker Road.

Residents and the City Council said they were concerned the worship center was backing out of previous agreements made before Alpharetta annexed the property from Fulton County in 2005.

Attorneys for the center argued this month that the mosque never entered into any agreement with surrounding homeowners about the development of its facility or the size of its congregation. The congregants of the Islamic Center are underserved by the current facility, they argue.

In addition, the Islamic Center argues that its expansion would not adversely affect traffic on Rucker Road and that the city's own Comprehensive Plan allows for churches in the area.

In its arguments before the court, the city maintains the Islamic Center asserted in its original zoning agreement with Fulton County that the site would be used as a place of worship in the existing structure.

The city also claims that center officials indicated in 1998 they were not planning on growing their 25-member congregation.

City Attorney Sam Thomas said Alpharetta is awaiting a ruling from the judge and will be prepared to present its case at trial if necessary.

"The city’s position from the outset is that this case is not about religion," Thomas said. "It’s about land use, and that’s what we presented in our oral argument to the court."