On 27 February 2017, Creeping Sharia, a web site dedicated to reporting negative stories about Muslims to create the impression that Islam is being forcibly imposed upon America, posted an article with the headline “Michigan: Sterling Heights Submits to Sharia — Allows Mosque in Residential Area, Will Pay Mosque’s $350K Insurance Deductible.” The article claimed that sharia law (a set of Islamic moral codes and customs) is now taking over Sterling Heights, Michigan, because a mosque will move forward with construction as the result of a lawsuit settlement:
The federal government-imposed sharia has now been approved by the local Sterling Heights government and not only includes a mega-mosque in the middle of a residential community and taxpayer-funded insurance payments but will force city employees to attend Islamic propaganda training.
The language in the Creeping Sharia post skews the facts to create the appearance that Muslims had strong-armed the Michigan city into a favorable outcome, but according to a Department of Justice (DOJ) lawsuit it was more the case that the Sterling Heights planning commission bucked both federal law and the advice of its own city planning staff by denying a permit for the construction of the mosque in order to appease residents who crowded public meetings and voiced anti-Muslim sentiment. The planning commission’s decision of September 2015 prompted both the American Islamic Community Center (AICC) and the DOJ to file lawsuits accusing the city of religious discrimination. Both those lawsuit suits ended with the city’s agreeing to settle them.
In the American Islamic Community Center’s (AICC) lawsuit, filed on 10 August 2016, the organization stated that plans for the proposed mosque near Mound and 15 Mile met a hostile reception from the commission from the beginning. The AICC noted that the mosque’s proposed site was located in a “residential area” because the city had no zoning specifically for religious buildings:
The American Islamic Community Center is an established religious organization whose members have resided in the City of Sterling Heights for over 50 years and include veterans of the United States of America whose service dates back to World War I. The Center entered into an agreement with a property owner to build a Mosque on land within a zoning district that allows Houses of Worship through means of a Special Land Use Approval as the City has no zones that permit Houses of Worship as of right. The site plan submitted by the Center met all of the requirements to build a Mosque in the City of Sterling Heights. Accordingly, the City Planning Staff recommended approval.
The proposal went to a public hearing before a hostile Planning Commission and public. With a vociferous and racist member of the Planning Commission leading the charge, the Planning Commission voted to reject the site plan.
As part of the settlement with the AICC, the city would have to cover a $350,000 insurance deductible, while its insurance paid the balance of the monetary settlement. (The $350,000 figure in no way represents the “mosque’s insurance deductible”; that amount is the deductible that applies to city’s liability insurance.)
After an investigation, the DOJ filed a lawsuit on 15 December 2016 noting that the city’s planning staff had worked with the AICC’s Jaafar Chehab and successfully hammered out ways in which the proposed 20,500-square-foot building could satisfy city requirements, and that the staff had recommended in a report presented at an 13 August 2016 meeting the project be approved. City planner Don Mende presciently cautioned elected leaders that the project fell under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which protects religious organizations from discriminatory zoning:
About a week before the August 13 City Planning Commission meeting (“August 13 meeting”), the City Planning Office issued a report regarding the Application (“August 13 Report”). City Planner Mende prepared the Report and provided it to the members of the City Planning Commission.
The August 13 Report stated that the Application met all of the specific standards for residential zones and all of the general standards for Special Approval Land Use, outlined in § 3.02(A) and § 25.02 of the Zoning Ordinance, respectively. The August 13 Report recommended approval of the Application …
After City Planner Mende gave his presentation, members of the public spoke during a public comment period. Fifty people spoke against the Application; only seven people spoke in favor of the Application.
Many of the comments were directed at the religion of the Petitioner, including a plea to “Remember 9/11,” statements that Christians would not be allowed to build a church in Iraq, and statements that property values would drop if a mosque were built in the neighborhood.
The federal government’s lawsuit ended with a settlement that paved the way for the building of the mosque and also required city officials and employees to receive training on federal laws barring religious discrimination in zoning (not training in “Islamic propaganda”). On 22 February 2017, the Justice Department released a statement on the settlement saying that:
The United States alleged that Sterling Heights discriminated against the AICC on the basis of religion when it denied the application to build a mosque. It further alleged that the denial imposed a substantial burden on the AICC’s religious exercise. The AICC, currently located in Madison Heights, Michigan, sought to build in Sterling Heights because the location is more convenient for its members and its current space has become inadequate for its religious, educational and social needs.
As part of the settlement, the city has agreed to permit the AICC to construct a mosque in the city. The city has also agreed to publicize its non-discrimination policies and practices, undergo training on the requirements of RLUIPA [Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000], and report periodically to the Justice Department.
“Federal law protects the right of faith communities to build places of worship without discrimination or unreasonable burdens on their religious exercise,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Tom Wheeler of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “We commend the city of Sterling Heights for agreeing to approve the AICC’s mosque, so that it can serve its members and contribute to the surrounding community.”
Dawud Walid, director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a civil rights organization, said Sterling Heights officials rejected the religious group’s bid for the worship center because they were “pandering” to voters who came to public hearings and voiced anti-Muslim sentiments in their opposition to the mosque. “They know among their base, Islamophobia is the flavor of the month,” he said. Walid, who had attended some of the meetings, called the experience “horrible.”
In audio recorded by local news organizations, one attendee at a planning meeting can be heard saying, “What they should do is probably have Homeland Security check these people out just in case. You don’t know what’s going on. You know they’re cutting people’s heads off, they’re killing our soldiers and everything. Come on, this is outrageous.”
According to a statement published in the New York Times (but which has since been removed from the city’s web site), Sterling Heights spokeswoman Bridget Doyle maintained that the city had been “surprised and disappointed” by the legal actions, and that the application had been denied because of concerns over the building’s proposed size, height and parking.
However, a video posted by Fox Detroit reporter Randy Wimbley showed just how heated the matter had become. When the Planning Commission announced in 2015 that the mosque’s permit application had been denied, a crowd gathered at city hall erupted in cheers:
BREAKING: Sterling Heights Planning Commission rejects Mosque proposal. Crowd inside and outside City Hall erupts pic.twitter.com/5QwOMqtUR4
— Randy Wimbley (@RandyWFOX2) September 11, 2015
The settlements were not a result of Sterling Heights’ submitting to “sharia,” but instead were brought about through challenges from a religious group and the federal government that the city failed to adhere to federal laws.