WASHINGTON - The U.S. Justice Department is supporting a Muslim group's bid to open a mosque in the Midwestern state of Michigan, suing the City of Troy for blocking the proposed project.
The department filed a lawsuit Thursday against the city of 80,000 north of Detroit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal law that protects houses of worship against discriminatory land use regulations. The lawsuit is part of a 2018 Justice Department initiative to increase enforcement of RLUIPA and a broader Trump administration focus on promoting religious freedom.
A similar lawsuit brought last year by the Muslim group, the Adam Community Center, accuses Troy officials of repeatedly blocking their efforts to open a place of worship, and urging them to look at nearby cities to find a suitable location for a mosque.
At issue in both civil complaints is whether Troy violated RLUIPA when it rejected Adam Community Center's zoning application in 2018 to convert a recently acquired former restaurant and banquet hall into a mosque.
55 houses of worship
According to the city's official website, there are 55 houses of worship in Troy, including one synagogue, one Hindu temple, and many churches. The city has no mosque for its nearly 200 Muslim families.
While the city's zoning laws allow houses of worship in its business district, city officials turned down the Muslim group's application last year to use the building as a mosque, saying the structure could only be used as a "nonreligious" place of assembly, such as a banquet hall or a theater.
The Justice Department says this "unequal treatment of all places of worship in the city compared to nonreligious uses" violates RLUIPA.
"Troy is obligated to treat religious assemblies and institutions on equal terms with nonreligious assemblies and institutions," said Matthew Schneider, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. "This complaint reflects our commitment to protect the religious liberties of all people in this district."
Waiting on lawsuit
In a statement to VOA, Troy City Attorney Lori Grigg Bluhm said the city has not yet been served with the Justice Department lawsuit but that it "vehemently denies it engaged in any impropriety or discrimination."
Amy Doukoure, a staff attorney for CAIR Michigan, which represents Adam Community Center in its lawsuit, said she welcomed the Justice Department's lawsuit.
"We're very happy that they decided to file this lawsuit," she said."It only strengthens our case."
The Justice Department's lawsuit comes as the Trump administration has pushed government agencies to promote policies in support of religious freedom.While religious conservatives have welcomed this effort, LGBTQ activists and other critics say it threatens their rights.
In June 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a religious conservative, announced an initiative to increase enforcement and public awareness of RLUIPA, saying the effort "will help us bring more civil rights cases, win more cases, and prevent discrimination from happening in the first place."
In the first year since its launch, the department doubled the number of RLUIPA investigations to 15 from an average of seven a year between 2010 and 2016.A majority of the investigations resulted in a resolution without a lawsuit.The Justice Department says it has resolved 10 RLUIPA investigations since the initiative was announced.