STERLING HEIGHTS, Mi. (ChurchMilitant.com) - Residents of Sterling Heights, Michigan, are suing the mayor and city for abusing their civil rights and violating city zoning ordinances by allowing a controversial mosque to be built.
On March 13, seven people filed a lawsuit against the city of Sterling Heights and Mayor Michael Taylor, in response to a March 10 court order — called a consent judgment — allowing a 20,500-square-foot mosque with a 58-foot dome and two minarets about 66-feet high to be built in a residential neighborhood, composed predominantly of Chaldean Christians.
Initially, in 2015, a member of the American Islamic Community Center (AICC) sought to build on property on 15 Mile Road in Sterling Heights. An application for a Special Approval Land Use request was denied because the mosque would bring too much traffic into the residential area, and there would not be enough street-side parking.
In response, both the AICC and the Obama-run U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) sued the city. The DOJ lawsuit alleged that the city is in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. It noted, "Since 2006, no application for Special Approval Land Use for a place of worship has been denied," and that the city has approved five applications for places of worship since then.
The AICC's lawsuit asserted, "The proposal went to a public hearing before a hostile Planning Commission and public. With a vociferous and racist member of the Planning Commission leading the charge, the Planning Commission voted to reject the site plan."
Local residents, many of whom were Assyrian and Chaldean Christians originally from Syria and Iraq, had very strong feelings about the matter which was supposed to be discussed at a city council meeting on February 21. The behavior of the mayor, however, has served to add to the tension and — as the seven plaintiffs charge — the violations of their constitutional rights.
The lawsuit comments, "A City Council meeting is a place where a private citizen has an opportunity to exercise his or her First Amendment rights. It is a public forum for the speech of private citizens, including Plaintiffs. In fact, it is a designated public forum for such speech."
But Taylor, it alleges, changed the allotted time community members have to voice their opinion, from seven minutes to only two.
It further noted, "no one was permitted to mention religion or even hint at it when discussing the Consent Judgment matter, and certainly no one was permitted to make any statement that might be deemed critical of Islam."
When citizens spoke up, Taylor had the council members leave the room or else had city police escort the complaining resident from the room. One plaintiff, Jerry Norgrove, a member of the city planning commission and a resident, was "instructed by a city representative to stay home."
The purpose of the meeting, however, was to hear from citizens and make a judgment on whether to fight the DOJ and AICC lawsuits or capitulate. The lawsuit asserts, "As it turns out, the City's decision to enter into the Consent Judgment was a fait accompli, and the City Council meeting was merely a sham."
Residents note the vote was behind closed doors and was already decided by Taylor and the city council before the meeting.
The city decided to settle for an undisclosed price even though the city's attorney, Anne McClory McLaughlin, commented the city has "valid legal defenses to many of the claims" to both lawsuits. She justifies the city's decision to settle the lawsuits, claiming it "would come at a great financial cost" to defend.
Four of the plaintiffs are Christians, three from Iraq and one from Syria, while the others are concerned citizens who live or have family who lives close to the site of the proposed mosque.
Norgrove claims the actions of the mayor and the city undermine "the authority of the Planning Commission, its role as the final decision maker under the Zoning Ordinance, and the procedures by which applicants must comply with the Zoning Ordinance, which was enacted for the benefit of the public."
The lawsuit notes the planning commission's decision was "based upon criteria contained in the Zoning Ordinance and was not based upon religion or religious denomination." It further notes the "AICC has an existing place of worship" and that it has "continued to exercise its religious beliefs throughout all relevant periods of time." It goes on to say, "the denial of AICC's application has not substantially burdened its religious exercise."
It further notes:
By approving the Consent Judgment, which grants AICC special rights and privileges, suppressing speech deemed critical of Islam during the City Council meeting, and displaying hostility to those who opposed the building of the AICC Mosque at this meeting, Defendants conveyed a message of approval of adherents of Islam and disapproval of those who were not adherents of Islam.
Plaintiffs are suing to halt the consent judgment as "invalid and unenforceable," for nominal damages against the city and the mayor, and to award the plaintiffs' attorney costs.