Residents and city officials in a Mississippi town can no longer discriminate against two Muslim men who wanted to build a mosque near their homes. A judge has decided the construction of the structure, which had previously been denied, must now move ahead. The decision comes two months after the American Civil Liberties Union filed an anti-discrimination lawsuit against the city on behalf of the two men.
Emily Wagster Pettus of The Associated Press reported on the lawsuit, which accused Horn Lake officials of being motivated by anti-Muslim prejudice when they rejected a zoning request for what would be the first mosque in DeSoto County.
According to Pettus, “Hours after the lawsuit was filed in early November, U.S. District Judge Michael P. Mills wrote that the suit presented ‘very serious, and if proven factually accurate, strong allegations of religious discrimination.’”
Following that initial statement, Mills officially decided in favor of the plaintiffs in the case, Maher Abuirshaid and Riyadh Elkhayyat, on Monday, Jan. 3. In the settlement that city officials agreed to, construction of the mosque would now be able to move ahead, and the city will also be forced to pay the men $25,000 in damages along with “unspecified attorneys’ fees.”
Abuirshaid and Elkhayyat said in the lawsuit that they wanted to build a local mosque in their community so their friends, families and others in the community would have a place to worship without being forced to drive into nearby Memphis. In a 5-1 vote, city officials initially denied the construction permit request over concerns of “insufficient water supply” and the possibility of “traffic and noise.”
During a city-planning meeting where the permit was discussed, numerous residents living near the proposed mosque site also spoke out, often in racist tirades. The hate on display within the community was so bad that the ACLU noted in the lawsuit, saying city officials “did not work very hard to hide the true reason they denied approval for the project — anti-Muslim prejudice.”
Mills’ decision should help to eliminate many of those obstacles.
“Under the judge’s order, Horn Lake must approve a site plan review application the city denied for the proposed mosque, Abraham House of God, early last year,” Pettus reported. “The city also must act on all future construction and permitting applications for the mosque ‘without any unusual delay and free from any illegal, discriminatory intent or effect.’”
In a statement, Heather Weaver, senior staff attorney for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, called the judge’s decision “an important victory for religious freedom.”
“It affirms the fundamental principle that the government may not base its decisions on bigotry against a particular faith,” she added.