Justice Department: Des Plaines broke federal law in denying Islamic group's request to open mosque in former office building

By Jonathan Bilyk | Sep 30, 2015

The U.S. Justice Department is suing the city of Des Plaines, saying the city broke federal law when it refused the request of a group of Bosnian Sufi Muslims to open a mosque in one of the western suburb’s industrial areas. The intervention comes as the group continues its own lawsuit against the city.

The U.S. Justice Department is suing the city of Des Plaines, saying the city broke federal law when it refused the request of a group of Bosnian Sufi Muslims to open a mosque in one of the western suburb’s industrial areas.

On Wednesday, Sept. 30, federal prosecutors filed a complaint, signed by U.S. Atty. Gen. Loretta Lynch and U.S. Atty. Zachary Fardon, among others, against the city in federal court in Chicago, alleging Des Plaines officials violated the rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of the group known as the American Islamic Center when the city in 2013 refused to allow the AIC to renovate a vacant office building for use as a mosque and community center.

The AIC is described in the complaint as “a non-profit religious organization of Bosnian Muslims that practices a Sufi approach to Islam.”

Practitioners of Sufi Islam trace the origins of their approach to the religion to its beginning. Adherents place a focus on the spiritual aspects of Islam and a desire for a more pure worship, according to information posted on ReligionFacts.com.

The Justice Department’s complaint comes even as the AIC continues its own legal battle in federal court against the city over the zoning decision. The AIC filed suit in 2013 shortly after the city denied its zoning request.

That request had been made after the AIC had secured a contract to purchase the vacant office building from an insurance brokerage, ostensibly ending a years-long search for a place to open their own mosque and community center. The complaint indicated AIC members, because of their Sufi approach to Islam, were not welcome or felt out of place at other mosques in the area where adherents to Sufi Islam are unwelcome or Sufism is not practiced.

The Des Plaines City Council voted in 2013 to deny the group’s land use request. At the time, city officials used a variety of rationales to deny the AIC, raising, among other objections, concerns over parking, safety of children visiting the mosque for worship and other activities, and concerns over the impact of the new development on nearby businesses.

However, while discussing the city’s reasons, the Justice Department said the city’s decision does not square with federal law, the city’s own zoning codes or prior zoning decisions made by the city regarding houses of worship.

The Justice Department complaint, for instance, noted the city allowed a different mosque located within the city to supply the number of off-street parking spots required by the city’s ordinances. In the case of the AIC, however, the complaint argued city officials opted to apply a different, more stringent standard. The complaint alleged the city’s engineer had opted to apply such a standard simply because the AIC is a Muslim group, and the city had experienced higher traffic volumes than the parking spots required under the ordinance could handle at the city’s other mosque.

Regardless, the complaint noted the stricter standard requiring more parking spots cannot be found within the city’s codes. For instance, under the city’s code, the AIC would be required to provide 62 parking spaces. Under the ratios used by the city engineer, however, the AIC would have needed to provide 296 spaces.

The complaint noted the AIC agreed to cut its worship space in half, a compromise which would have allowed the group to reduce the number of required parking spaces to 145.

The city, however, still denied the AIC request.

The Justice Department complaint noted the city had since 2006 granted permission to six non-profit organizations which generate large amounts of traffic in former commercial buildings in industrial and commercial areas of the city. These included three churches, a Buddhist temple and two private schools.

And the Justice Department pointed to a number of other areas of Des Plaines where houses of worship coexist with a range of other land uses, including commercial and industrial uses.

The Justice Department complaint lists three counts, including violation of the Religious Land Use law and religious discrimination.

The complaint asks the court to declare the city of Des Plaines has violated the law, as it has allegedly treated the AIC’s request differently than it would a request made by a different religious or nonreligious organization.

Further, the Justice Department has asked the court to require the city of Des Plaines to allow the AIC to proceed with the purchase of the building and allow the AIC to convert the building for use as a house of worship. The complaint also asked the court to require city officials to participate in training regarding the Religious Land Use Act and to begin maintaining and submitting reports regarding “RLUIPA compliance.”

The AIC is represented in its action by the firm of Anthony J. Peraica & Associates, of Chicago.

The city of Des Plaines is represented by the firm of Ancel Glink, of Chicago.

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Organizations in this Story

Ancel, Glink, Diamond, Bush, DiCianni & Krafthefer PC Anthony J. Peraica & Associates. Ltd. U.S. Department of Justice

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