DETROIT -- The U.S. Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit against the city of Sterling Heights claiming the Detroit suburb was biased against Muslims when it shot down a plan to build a mosque there last year.
The Justice Department claims in the lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Detroit that Sterling Heights officials catered to the fears and views of anti-Muslim residents who showed up at public meetings and expressed views of all sorts in opposition to the mosque.
One person said "Remember 9/11," according to the lawsuit, while another held up a picture of a woman wearing a head covering and said he didn't want to "be near people like this" and a third person asked Homeland Security to screen the group that wanted the mosque, saying "they're cutting people's heads off; they kill our soldiers."
And it wasn't just residents who made such comments, the federal government claims, but elected officials did, too. According to the lawsuit, Sterling Heights Mayor Michael Taylor once asked whether the mosque could appear "less Middle Eastern" and more "generic."
The Justice Department lawsuit comes four months after the American Islamic Community Center filed its own lawsuit against the city, alleging Sterling Heights unlawfully denied the AICC an application for a special land use to build a mosque on 15 Mile between Ryan and Mound roads.
Both lawsuits accuse Sterling Heights of violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act -- a 16-year-old law that prohibits the government from engaging in religious discrimination when making land use decisions.
The Justice Department lawsuit notes that since 2006, no application for special approval land use for a place of worship has been denied in Sterling Heights, "with the exception of the application" for the mosque. However, during this same period, the lawsuit notes, the city approved five special land use applications for places of worship.
At issue is a 9-0 vote by the Sterling Heights Planning Commission last year to reject building the mosque. City officials and residents have said their rejection was not based on bigotry, noting that the city already has a mosque, but over concerns that the location was not suitable for such a large building and could cause traffic problems.
But the federal government isn't convinced.
According to the Justice Department lawsuit, the AICC, which is currently located in Madison Heights, wanted to build in Sterling Heights because it needed a more convenient location for its members and more space. The current facility, the suit alleges, is overcrowded during religious observances and isn't big enough to accommodate all of the group's educational and youth activities and special events. So the group embarked on a plan to build a bigger mosque in Sterling Heights, but was shot down.