AICC/DOJ Settlement: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly


As I write this it is roughly 12 hours after City Council approved a settlement agreement with the American Islamic Community Center (AICC) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) in dual lawsuits brought over a 2015 Planning Commission decision to deny the building of a mosque on 15 Mile Road. I find myself uneasy with some of the things that go with that settlement.  I think it’s important to look at all of this in the light of day.

First and foremost, the Good: approving the settlement was absolutely, completely, and without reservation the right thing to do.  Legally the city didn’t have a leg to stand on considering the very high bar the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) law sets forth with regard to whether or not a municipality can place “burdens” on a religious group’s use of land.  To quote the law directly, there must be a “compelling government interest” in placing these restrictions on a proposal.  Whether or not the city’s interest in enforcing its setback requirements is “compelling” is an interesting question, and I fully expect that as a Planning Commissioner I am about to receive some (settlement-mandated) training on what that term means under the RLUIPA law.  In the DOJ Press Conference this morning, there were several mentions of how city officials were “educated” as to their responsibilities under the law.  I expect this education will soon be passed onto me in excruciating clarity.

Moreover, approving the settlement was the only decent thing to do: denying our fellow Americans their right to practice their religion is both immoral and hypocritical for a government that makes claim to respecting diversity and equality as ours does.  Rectifying the wrong that denied the AICC group one of its basic rights under the Constitution (and, I believe, a basic human right) is paramount.  That task casts a long shadow over virtually every other consideration, and perhaps that alone should be enough to assuage my concerns over the settlement taken in its entirety.  That it was possible to achieve the goal of relief for the AICC without a protracted legal battle in court is an unalloyed good in my view.

However, there are a few things that trouble me about the settlement, and I will set them forth here, hopefully in a way that will be taken as respectful by our friends at the AICC and the DOJ, and with a mind towards the idea that when you settle, you don’t get everything that you want.  Here is the Bad:

I am unclear on the RLUIPA treatment of the setback requirements and building height requirements in the zoning ordinance.  A DOJ-published “Q & A” document states that:

So long as a municipality applies its codes uniformly and does not impose an unjustified substantial burden on religious exercise, it may apply traditional zoning concerns – such as regulations addressing traffic, hours of use, parking, maximum capacity, intensity of use, setbacks, frontage – to religious uses just as they are applied to any other land uses.

Now the same document also states,

When there is a conflict between RLUIPA and the zoning code or how it is applied, RLUIPA, as a federal civil rights law, takes precedence and the zoning law must give way.

It seems to me that the quotes translate to “the zoning law applies until RLUIPA says it doesn’t,” which as a practical matter leaves someone like me in a quandary.  As a layman with regard to the application of civil rights law, I’m going to have to defer to the city attorney’s interpretation of this and hope that they manage to keep me out of trouble with the DOJ as I go about my business in my role as a Planning Commissioner.

Another thing that troubles me about the settlement is the implication that the action the Planning Commission took in the Fall of 2015 was intended to cause harm to the AICC.

I don’t believe that the Planning Commissioners intended to cause harm to anyone or any group by voting 9-0 against the mosque proposal.  Whether or not they actually did cause harm is a separate matter; I think it’s fair to say that the AICC was, in fact, harmed by the decision.  My issue is the lack of intent.

I suppose the lack of mens rea on the part of the city and the Planning Commission made the difference between a DOJ lawsuit and a DOJ prosecution, but as a layman with regard to the law I am purely speculating.  Some attorney, somewhere, will probably set me straight on this, and I’m hoping it will be soon.  What I do know, and something I keep in mind as a Planning Commissioner, is when we vote to turn a proposal down, we’re causing some form of harm to the applicant, usually financial.  As a man of conscience this troubles me, but on the other hand I took an oath to uphold the law to the best of my ability, and in so doing I implicitly agreed to make decisions that would not always have all parties leave satisfied.

So if we accept the idea that sometimes in the course of doing business a Planning Commission inadvertently causes harm to those applicants whose proposals do not pass muster, is it fair to say that the harm caused to the AICC was not particularly exceptional in this regard?  Is it simply the intersection of religious rights with ordinary land use that makes the difference between this being exceptional or not?

This may seem like a minor point to most, but as a Planning Commissioner this is a question I gotta know the answer to, and fast, before any other religious land use proposals arise on the docket.   If we begin to treat all religious land use proposals with kid gloves then we may well find ourselves in dereliction of our duty to uphold the zoning law.  On the other hand, if we uphold the zoning law without giving regard to religious land use rights, we’re going to proceed as we did in 2015 and get our hands smacked with another lawsuit.  You can see the conundrum.

Another qualm I have with the settlement is that not all of the terms are public.  I understand occasionally a government may enter into an agreement, in the form of a settlement or otherwise, in which a certain confidentiality may be required to protect the interests of the person or persons involved.  For example, there is no need to put the proverbial finger on any individual as the proximate cause of this particular conflict when a group of commissioners decided unanimously, with the tacit approval of city attorneys and planning officials, to vote something down.  In fact, it makes me uncomfortable that statements made by a planning commissioner have been highlighted as a reason why the DOJ decided to pursue this case in the manner it did, although I find those particular statements reprehensible, ill conceived, and ill advised.  So perhaps you can understand why I say, yes, I can see why some of this settlement needs to remain confidential as long as the public doesn’t have some overriding need to know.

On the other side of the coin, it would be best for us as Planning Commissioners to know, understand and appreciate all of the naked, dangly bits of this settlement deal so that we don’t stupidly make the same mistake(s) again the next time somebody wants to build a house of worship.  Surely that is a compelling interest.  Again, where do we draw the line?

And now for The Ugly promised to you in the title of this tome: the matter of how nothing has really been resolved between the AICC and the residents opposed to the building of a mosque for religious reasons.

I can’t tell you how disappointed I am that there are people in 2017 who are willing to stand up before God and country, and on television tell you that they hate all members of a particular religion, or that they consider them to be “terrorists.”  This has to be one of the most perversely annoying, yet, on a certain level, understandable problems of our time.

In a day and age where we are making huge inroads in the form of tolerance and acceptance toward those who do not meet a certain, rigidly defined social norm, it is hard to comprehend this attitude towards members of a (slightly different) religion with roots in the same god of Abraham.  On the other hand, we have unfortunately been witness to the politicization of Islam in the United States over the past 16 years since 9/11.  It is not hard to understand how it might be beyond a lot of people’s ability to separate radical Islam from the garden variety practice of that religion by a group like the AICC:  in short, critical thinking skills are frequently at a premium among the general public, and with the contentious nature of our national politics, many among us tend to see things in terms of black and white.

All this is to say that we’re not out of the woods yet on this mosque thing, not by a long shot.  With the legal hurdles of getting the thing approved by the city now cleared, it would seem that the AICC will move forward with getting engineering diagrams drawn up and materials selected, and eventually will select a contractor and break ground.  And that is as it should be.

But the folks that stood in that parking lot two summers ago cheering and pulling on hijabs and who then waved signs last night emblazoned with the slogan “We will REMBER in November” are hardly convinced that this is all over with.  Also, the very real (and I sincerely believe, evil) forces that will attempt to capitalize on this conflict during an election year are not about to pack up and go away without another word.

We’re gonna hear from Sanaa Elias and Jazmine Early again.  Bet money on it.  And they’re going to do their best to stir the pot and capitalize on any discontent they bring to the surface.  Will there be angry demonstrations?  I’d imagine so.  Will there be acts of aggression inspired at least tangentially by their activities?  Not hard to imagine.  Are the police going to have to keep a close watch on the site of this mosque as it gets built to protect the AICC from its neighbors?   Gee, I sure hope not, but I fear this will be the case.

I don’t know what to tell you to do about religious intolerance.  As Councilman Skrzyniarz said last night, religious intolerance is a problem as old as civilization itself.  It even predates traffic!  What do you do when you have a large, angry group of people determined to oppress a religious group so they cannot practice their religion?

I am not a religious man myself, but if there is something to pray for in this situation, it is peace.  It is tolerance.  It is harmony.  It is for the good of all of our fellow human beings and neighbors.  And it is certainly worth praying for someone or something to lead us to a resolution of this conflict before anything really bad happens.  Here’s hoping that whoever or whatever will lead us to this goal turns up fast.

 

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Posted on February 22, 2017, in Issues and views. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. You are so wrong on many levels. First, you are dead wrong on anyone wanting to deny anyone their right to practice their religion. We all believe in the first amendment. I disagree with your statement that, “denying our fellow Americans their right to practice their religion is both immoral and hypocritical for a government that makes claim to respecting diversity and equality as ours does. Rectifying the wrong that denied the AICC group one of its basic rights under the Constitution (and, I believe, a basic human right) is paramount.” No one is denying any such thing. We are against the building of this religious building on the lots due to the factors clearly articulated by the planning commission decision. As stated in the meeting other religions were denied initial locations for their buildings but their handling of their
    decision spoke volumes. Those organizations moved on and looked for another location. They were part of the community and worked with the city and did not sue. Why wasn’t the AICC group doing the same?

    Second, I am against councils that are not transparent and this council is known for keeping the citizens in the dark of their actions. Why wasn’t this decision tabled until people were aware of the circumstances surrounding it. I felt they should not have settled and should have upheld the decision of the planning commission, which was based on sound judgment.

    Third, I am not looking to profit from any failed policies of our council. I am looking for better representatives for our residents and our community. Our residents deserve better and this council does not represent us well.

    • You think that religious organizations should just give up and walk away after spending time and considerable amounts of money selecting a site and entering into a contract to use it? That’s a ridiculous argument. AICC didn’t follow your prescribed course because they didn’t want to be used like a doormat by a process they felt was unfair. Ms. Elias, surely you know that they were well within their Constitutional rights to sue the city?

      As far as the Council not being “transparent” and being “known for keeping the citizens in the dark”: if you feel Council has violated the Open Meetings Act, then you should contact the District Attorney and ask them to press charges. I strongly suspect that this is just an empty campaign-year claim you’re making: how about you substantiate it with some actual, verifiable facts? I am a far more astute observer of this council than you will ever hope to be, and I do not detect any malfeasance whatsoever.

      Personally, I feel the present council represents us very well. I have not always felt this way: a short perusal through the early years of this blog’s posts will show that clearly. But the five people remaining who were elected in 2015 have provided us far better representation than the crowd of barely literate yahoos and openly bigoted punks you ran with to oppose them would have.

      Your bigotry has been ably demonstrated by your actions over the past few years. Trying to cloud the real issue — your dislike for Muslims and the LGBT community — with pseudo-issues raised by your 2017 campaign propaganda is not going to work in this space. Ms. Elias: we know who you are and what you represent. Your actions and words made your true nature perfectly clear during your campaign in 2015. You are hardly a public minded citizen seeking to benefit the city: you are a hard-line extremist attempting to gain office so she can impose her will on certain vulnerable groups of people. You will not prevail.

  2. What is great about this country is that you can speak your mind. However, we should be able to disagree without resorting to name calling. You can’t help but resort to distasteful rhetoric by stating “my bigotry” has been demonstrated. That is not true. I believe we all possess the same rights and I don’t believe that others should be given preferential treatment because of who they love.

    Also I don’t dislike Muslims. (No reason to tell you this but one of my best friends is Muslim) Because I believe in vetting does not make me a hater or a bigot. I am a legal immigrant from Syria. My dad was sponsored first and came to America to make a better life for us. He and my mom were separated by five long years; he in America and she in Syria raising her young children until five years later when immigration papers and money was provided for our trip here. Immigration is not always easy and family is separated as most immigrants will tell you. But the price we paid to live in America was worth it. We did not accept welfare, did not speak English but we learned English and became contributing members of this country. I am proud to be called an American.

    • You and I are not engaged in the sort of exchange that can be termed a “disagreement.” What I am doing, rather than discussing anything with you, is repudiating you for your actions, those being your door-to-door ventures in my neighborhood encouraging people to demonstrate against the mosque. I find those actions to be those of a bigoted person. This is not name calling, this is me classifying you as someone who behaves in a reprehensible manner with regard to people of a different faith (and in your particular case, also toward people of a different sexual orientation.)

      I am sorry if you find that uncomfortable, but I feel it is well supported by the facts. You did, in fact, go door to door in my neighborhood and ask people to demonstrate against the mosque. You did, in fact, go out of your way to have your campaign signs appear at the site of one of those demonstrations. You, in a sense, helped to “sponsor” one of those demonstrations, and therefore you own the results, which include expressions of anti-Muslim sentiment. You cannot have it both ways, Ms. Elias: you have become part of an anti-Muslim crowd. You have been associated with people who (and I’m paraphrasing but it’s almost a direct quote) want to “fly an airplane into a skyscraper full of those rag-head Muslims.” You cannot wash off the stain this has left on your character. If you sit at a table with anti-Muslims and agree with them, then you are anti-Muslim, much as if you sit at a table with fascists and agree with them you are a fascist.

      In addition, you also circulated petitions demanding that the Anti-LGBT Discrimination ordinance be struck down. You were an anti-LGBT activist, and you papered over that by claiming that as a human resources professional you had knowledge that the ordinance was redundant and unnecessary, which was a false claim. I also find that to be bigoted behavior.

      I guess I don’t understand your contentions about legal immigration with regard to this mosque. Frankly, the people who want to build the mosque have been Americans for a lot longer than you have, and many of them are natural-born Americans. So your discussion about being a legal immigrant from Syria is a non-sequitur in this discussion. However, I will tell you that your advocacy for Verna Babula and Jackie Ryan’s demands that we set up a local board to ‘vet’ prospective immigrants is also lunacy. We have a federal government to do that job, it has been doing it since long before *my* relatives arrived here, and I can assure you that my relatives got here a long, long, looong time before you turned up on our shores with your bigotry and half baked politics.

      • Again, your careless assumptions! I did come to the people’s demonstration on 15 mile to show support as I agreed with them that the rezoning was not appropriate. And yes, a friend (not me) did place my signs at the location. I was happy that he did because I supported their efforts to fight the rezoning. Your blog is not based on facts put your own subjective opinions. Why do you incite hatred in speaking against others when you have no idea of their intentions? You do realize disagreements do not require one to hate the other side, they just simply disagree.
        Please tell me, how do you explain Mayor Michael Taylor being present at the same demonstration? Is he labeled a bigot too for his attendance at the demonstration? As for those who did walk and share this communication about the mosque, does that action make them bigoted? I think not! They are using their first amendment rights to share information with others. You may not have agreed with their actions but you have no right to judge their heart.
        For once you are correct. I did circulate petitions demanding that the Anti-LGBT Discrimination ordinance be struck down for many reasons. However my actions don’t make me a bigot; it show that I disagree with the council’s conclusion.
        First, the lack of transparency by the council was intentional. The council was working behind the scenes with special interest groups on the ordinance without residents’ awareness.
        Second, this ordinance would have adversely affected people, faith groups and businesses in our city without a vote of the people.
        Third no one because of their sexual preference should have their sexual behavior rights protected over others. Sexual behavior is subject to change, unlike age and race which is immutable.
        During my 11 years as human resource professional, no such bias was visible. By law we are only to ask questions pertaining to the position. To ask about one’s sex; whether married, single, heterosexual or homosexual is against the law. I hired many people who were qualified to perform their job; their sexual preference was not of interest, nor a topic of conversation. To insinuate they are targeted is erroneous. I am sure all of us, at one time, have FELT discriminated against. A person is hired because either more experience, related education, better attitude and flexibility for the job, highly referred or a combination of the above. If you check your sources, many in the LGBT community have higher incomes than the average median income. Refer to https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2013/03/01/gay-couples-more-educated-higher-income-than-heterosexual-couples

        By the way, your broad brush paints everyone that I have associated with, spoken to or supported in the past to mean that I agree with every claim they make. Are you kidding me? Does that also apply to you? Not sure why you would attach someone else words to me as you stated when you said, your advocacy for Verna Babula and Jackie Ryan’s demands that we set up a local board to ‘vet’ prospective immigrants is also lunacy.” I have not articulated such advocacy as you state. This is the first time I have heard of this. That is someone else’s opinion and they have a right to make it. How dare you claim that by past association that I also must be of the same opinion? Wow, what a stretch. You sir are smearing people and not stating facts! I alone, not my friends, associate or acquaintances speak for me. However you seem to speak for me in assuming I support other opinions. WOW. When did you become god and know how other people think?
        I can’t stop you from such lies but I will no longer respond to your fabrications. This week is beginning of Lent and we are to forgive others and start anew. I forgive you and will move on.

      • This merits a point-by-point response to all of the patently false assertions and attempts at misdirection.

        “I did come to the people’s demonstration on 15 mile to show support as I agreed with them that the rezoning was not appropriate.”

        Someone running for city council ought to know the difference between a rezoning and a special use. The property in question has not been nor will it be rezoned. However, you and others used the term “rezoning” to confuse the issue and help raise the ire of the neighborhood.

        “Please tell me, how do you explain Mayor Michael Taylor being present at the same demonstration? Is he labeled a bigot too for his attendance at the demonstration?”

        Mayor Taylor can explain his actions for himself. I am not concerned with his attendance there quite simply because I am convinced of what is in his heart. He has not gone out of his way, as you and your associates have, to spread hatred, discord, fear and bigotry. He has not gone door to door organizing people to protest against the building of a house of worship. He has not fomented discontent against a legitimate ordinance to protect the rights of some of our most vulnerable citizens with a petition drive that spread lies and half truths in order to gather signatures. You did those things.

        “First, the lack of transparency by the council was intentional. The council was working behind the scenes with special interest groups on the ordinance without residents’ awareness.”

        This is a ridiculous assertion that is not supported by the facts. Further, it goes to show your poor understanding of how the legislative process in the city works. You are, in fact, lying by making the statement that the council was attempting to hide anything from the public, and you should be ashamed of yourself for doing so.

        “Second, this ordinance would have adversely affected people, faith groups and businesses in our city without a vote of the people.”

        Nonsense. Before you hoodwinked a large group of people into signing a petition that resulted in the repeal of the ordinance, it was in effect for several months. It caused no such adverse effects. This is pure fiction on your part.

        I happen to believe that nobody’s rights should be subjected to the whims of a majority which can be induced to vote against them under false pretenses. Your lack of understanding of this, once again, belies your ignorance of the role of a representative form of government in guaranteeing equality under the law and freedom for all.

        “During my 11 years as human resource professional, no such bias was visible. By law we are only to ask questions pertaining to the position. To ask about one’s sex; whether married, single, heterosexual or homosexual is against the law. I hired many people who were qualified to perform their job; their sexual preference was not of interest, nor a topic of conversation. To insinuate they are targeted is erroneous.”

        Quite simply put, the people who were to be protected by this ordinance profoundly disagreed with you. How easy it is for you, presumably a heterosexual woman, to cast doubt on the problems experienced by the LGBT community? Were you not there when these people cried out at the meeting for council’s help? Or were you more concerned with pooh-poohing their concerns and declaring that you knew better than they did in an attempt to achieve a political advantage? I strongly suspect the latter was the case.

        “By the way, your broad brush paints everyone that I have associated with, spoken to or supported in the past to mean that I agree with every claim they make. Are you kidding me?”

        This is a canonical example of a straw man argument, and it is not going to fly. It barely merits a response, but it does go to illustrate your desperation to manufacture some circumstance in which you can be correct. You are not.

        “… your advocacy for Verna Babula and Jackie Ryan’s demands that we set up a local board to ‘vet’ prospective immigrants is also lunacy.” I have not articulated such advocacy as you state. This is the first time I have heard of this. “

        You’ve told some whoppers in this response, Ms. Elias, but this one is surely the most fantastic of them all. You ran as part of a cohesive group of candidates which spent a great deal of time working together to coordinate its message. You made many joint appearances together, you campaigned together, and you helped to craft a group message together. You may or may not have agreed with Mrs. Babula or Mrs. Ryan, but to claim that “this is the first time I have heard of this” is a bold faced lie. You have stretched credulity beyond the breaking point. On this one phrase alone you have proven yourself to be an untrustworthy, lying politician, completely unfit for office.

        “This week is beginning of Lent and we are to forgive others and start anew. I forgive you and will move on.”

        You and I will not be starting anew. I do not ask for, nor do I want your forgiveness. I sincerely hope you spend Lent reflecting carefully on your many sins.

  3. Sterling Heights Man

    This blog is a joke. Almost everything you said was wrong. You accuse those opposing the mosque for being hateful and making generalizations, yet you do the same to all those people Since you are calling out innocent people may I call you out? If it’s okay may I call you a liberal hypocritical godless bigot trying to pretend to be conservative. I don’t like either potlical party but you remind of those rhinos.

    First of all the Islamic religion is nothing like the Christian one. You can’t compare the two. The Islamic religion promotes hatred and mistreatment against women and nonmumslims. The God they believe in is pagan based. I feel sorry for you if you are in denial about nay of that. However objectively read the Quran and Hadith which is the life of Muhammad which he is the ultimate role model. Both are riddled with voilence and hate. Islam is basically more like a political ideology than a religion. However that’s not even the reason people are objecting. No one is banning Muslims from the city after all. The size,disturbance and intent for building the mosque is the issue.
    .

    But hey Why don’t you explain to your blog audience why you think a over 20 thousand square foot mosque is necessary for an almost non exsistant Muslim population? If you actually studied before you wrote your articles. You would realize that this is being built as a political tool. The Muslims who are building this mosque have done the same in other cities across the country with the help of obamas doj. It’s about making the city of Sterling Heights the new Islamic Dearborn. The size of the mosque and the area it’s located in is very unnecessary. If they built a smaller sized mosque to compensate for their small population and in a non neighborhood with actual parking it would be make sense but they didn’t.

    But hey if your into the building of this large mosque. If your into attacking the large Christian refugee population of Sterling Heights. While catering to the almost nonexistent Muslim population.
    Than please go live in Islamic Dearborn. Raise your family their and tell us how it went. See how well they treat you compared to how we Christians treat you. The only true hate and discrimination is coming from you, the mayor and people building the large mosque.

    • Oooh! Hate mail! And even better, grammatically incorrect, misspelled hate mail! I love it!

      Mikel, you’re a true Christian soldier: Dumb as they come.

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