The U.S. Department of Justice is suing the City of Sterling Heights over their denial to permit the American Islamic Community Center (AICC) from building a mosque, according to a lawsuit filed today in U.S. District Court.
The DOJ is accusing city leaders of violating the group's religious rights.
They say before this case, the city had not denied special land use to a place of worship in a decade.
A Sterling Heights commissioner was cited in the lawsuit for asking if the city would consider a "full social and economic impact study," which the DOJ says has never been requested of a place of worship in the past.
The lawsuit cites statements made at council meetings, including "...there are certain sects of them that should not be in this country."
The DOJ also references Sterling Heights Mayor Taylor's request that the group make the mosque appear "less Middle Eastern."
The request to build the mosque was also a hot-button issue for in the 2015 Sterling Heights mayoral race.
Though the plans for the mosque met zoning conditions, the planning commission voted unanimously to deny the application to build last year, according to the DOJ lawsuit.
The DOJ is asking that the city immediately refrain from violating the religious rights of the Muslim community. The DOJ also says the city should must stop enforcing zoning restrictions that violates the group's religious rights.
The City of Sterling Heights released a statement regarding the lawsuit, saying in part that the city "has a solid reputation for inclusiveness and tolerance reflected in a wide variety of places of worship across the City..."
The City also notes that Sterling Heights "has cooperated fully with the Department of Justice in this matter, and is surprised and disappointed in its decision to initiative this lawsuit at this time."
Read the full statement below.
We also reached out to the American Islamic Community Center, which also filed a lawsuit against the city earlier this year. There were not reachable for comment.
Full statement from the City of Sterling Heights:
In response to the lawsuit filed by the United States Department of Justice on December 15, 2016:
Sterling Heights has a solid reputation for inclusiveness and tolerance reflected in a wide variety of places of worship across the City, including two existing Mosques, a Sikh Temple, a Buddhist Temple, Christian churches of various denominations and a BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir. Sterling Heights is a community that has and continues to welcome diversity through many programs and events. For many years, the city has been known in
Metro Detroit as a premier community—in large part because of its diverse population representing a wide variety of cultures, ethnicities and race. One of Sterling Heights' most well-attended annual events is the ever-popular Cultural Exchange, wherein thousands of residents gather every year to celebrate and share their heritage with one another through food, dancing, art displays and other activities.
Sterling Heights will continue to foster faith-based inclusiveness and understanding with local partners including our city's school districts, religious organizations and other community groups. Sterling Heights was the first City in Macomb County to join Welcoming Michigan, an organization representing new refugees and immigrants who
have chosen Sterling Heights as their new home. We continue to work closely with Welcoming Michigan to develop new programs tailored to inclusiveness as well as promoting education and understanding of the various cultures within our City. As stated in the City's 2030 Vision Statement; Sterling Heights is a vibrant, inclusive community for residents and businesses that is safe, active, progressive and distinctive. Inclusiveness will continue to be a guiding principle in all that we do. As such, the City has been and continues to be interested in collaborating with the American Islamic Community Center (AICC).
With the above in mind, the City has cooperated fully with the Department of Justice in this matter, and is surprised and disappointed in its decision to initiate this lawsuit at this time. The City maintains that the AICC application for special approval land use to construct a mosque was considered and denied by the City's Planning Commission based on established land use criteria including the incompatibility with adjoining uses, insufficient parking, as well as overall size and height of the building, and not emotional feelings tied to religious beliefs either for or against the applicant. The City welcomes the AICC along with any other religious groups to Sterling Heights and we will continue an open dialog to address areas of disagreement with respect to land use.
Knowing this matter involves litigation, the City will not be commenting any further publicly.