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This Town Has To Pay An Islamic School $1.7 Million After Denying It Zoning Rights

Pittsfield Township has agreed to pay $1.7 million after the DOJ filed a lawsuit alleging the township placed "unjustified burdens on religious exercise."

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An Islamic academy in Michigan has settled a four-year discrimination lawsuit dispute with town officials after alleging they unlawfully denied a permit that would allow the group to build a school on land it owns.

The Pittsfield Township Board of Trustees approved a motion to settle the Michigan Islamic Academy's lawsuit for $1.7 million at a meeting on Wednesday evening, The Ann Arbor News reported.

In 2012, the Islamic school, with the assistance of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and attorney Gadeir Abbas, filed a lawsuit claiming that the township had violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) after the township’s planning commission recommended that the Board of Trustees deny a zoning request — which it did, unanimously, without discussion.

Lena Masri, an attorney for CAIR Michigan, who helped filed the 2012 lawsuit, told BuzzFeed News that the $1.7 million settlement was one of the largest since RLUIPA was enacted.

“The American Muslim community, unfortunately, over the last few years, has been facing systematic and large scale discrimination whenever they try to build a mosque, school, cemetery or even a playground,” Masri said. “This case represents a huge victory for the American Muslim community, and it helps give a message to the American Muslim community that if you stand up for your rights, they will be granted.”

In October, 2015, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department also filed a lawsuit against Pittsfield Township, a town of around 30,000 located directly south of Ann Arbor.

In a statement from October, 2015, US Attorney Barbara L. McQuade said, “This complaint alleges that Pittsfield Township denied the Michigan Islamic Academy's request to build a school in violation of that law. We filed this lawsuit to protect the right of all Americans to practice their religion and receive the religious instruction and education of their choice.”

RULIPA was passed by Congress in 2000 and is designed to “protect individuals, houses of worship, and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning and landmarking laws,” according to the Justice Department.

In an emailed statement to BuzzFeed News on Thursday, Mandy Grewal, the Township’s supervisor, said that the Township and the Board of Trustees “deny any wrongdoing, discrimination or violation of law.”

“Traffic safety and congestion in the heart of a single-family residential subdivision were our foremost concerns, which have been addressed in the settlement,” the statement continued, and added that the township’s insurer, not the taxpayers, would be paying the settlement.

“The concurrent settlement with the Department of Justice also ends what promised to be protracted litigation – again with no finding of wrongdoing, discrimination or violation of law​​,” Grewal added.

A consent decree with the DOJ requires the township, for 180 days, to place a sign at the entrances to the Pittsfield Township Hall and on its website that states the township, “does not apply its zoning or land use laws in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of persons, including a religious assembly or institution.”

The settlement also requires the township to “provide training within 90 days... to its officials, employees and contractors on the requirements of RLUIPA, as well as act on all future religious land use applications in a manner that satisfies all provisions of RLUIPA.”

The Islamic school, which was founded in 1986 and is currently located in Ann Arbor, bought the land in 2010 and planned to build a school to ease overcrowding. It immediately faced issues from the planning commission, which cited concerns over traffic and the potential disruption of suburban residential homes near the proposed school. The school said two traffic studies found there to be little to no impact, The Ann Arbor News reported in 2011. The school also proposed a residential buffer-zone to be built on the land to address potential light and noise issues.

In August 2011, the planning commission voted 3-2 to recommend that the Board of Trustees vote against the rezoning. Subsequently, the Board of Trustees, without discussion, agreed with the planning commission in a unanimous vote.

But the DOJ, in its complaint, countered that the school had met all requirements for rezoning, offered solutions to the commission's issues, and said the township’s opposition to rezoning “was without factual basis.” The DOJ complaint also mentioned that the township has approved two church-run school that were of a similar size in the past.

The Justice Department also stated in the complaint that a planning commissioner “lived in the neighborhood next to the property and actively organized residents to oppose MIA’s [the school’s] petition, including by instructing them regarding what objections to raise.”

You can read both complaints by the DOJ and the school below.

2012 Michigan Islamic Academy Complaint

2015 Justice Department Complaint


Talal Ansari is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. His secure PGP fingerprint is 4FEE 894C 8088 7E08 E170 A515 2801 7CC6 95D3 11C2

Contact Talal Ansari at talal.ansari@buzzfeed.com.

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