Despite widespread community concerns, the city council of Sterling Heights -- a Detroit suburb of approximately 131,000 -- voted on Tuesday night to approve the construction of a mosque. Mayor Michael C. Taylor claimed that the move was the "American thing to do."
The council voted unanimously to settle with the Department of Justice and the American Islamic Community Center. The latter has plans to build 20,500-square-foot mosque at 15 Mile and Mound Road. The agreement came following two separate lawsuits filed when the city did not give permission to build the mosque in 2015.
The American Islamic Community Center has agreed to reduce the height and size of the mosque, eliminate the Muslim call to prayer over loudspeakers, and also prevent street parking. In addition, Sterling Heights is on the hook to pay the American Islamic Community Center the $350,000 deductible under the city’s insurance policy.
The Department of Justice had sued the city of Sterling Heights, alleging that it had engaged in anti-Muslim behavior by denying appropriate zoning for the proposed mosque.
On Tuesday night, dozens of citizens gathered at council chambers to denounce the proposed construction. Some claimed that the mosque poses a threat to the wider community. A woman who identified herself as a Chaldean Christian, a minority in Iraq that has been persecuted relentlessly by the terrorist forces of the Islamic State, said she emigrated from her native country to escape the violence there. She claimed that the mosque would create “too much friction" between Christians and Muslims. When another resident said that he foresees a mass exodus from the area because of the mosque, Councilman Doug Skrzyniarz retorted, "This isn't the first time this has ever happened in the world. This is the history of humanity. Religious wars were the first wars we had in society."
This prompted angry outbursts from the citizens, causing Mayor Taylor to call for a recess. Once the meeting was resumed, he said "We're not going back and for all night with these interruptions. The interruptions are pointless...If you can't conduct yourselves professionally, were going to remove everybody."
Skrzyniarz resumed his earlier remarks, saying "My point is that we have a tradition in America since our founding where people come here from all over the world to have their religious liberty protected." The two lawsuits cited the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The law protects individuals, places of worship, and other religious institutions from illegal discrimination in zoning and land-marking law. The American Islamic Community Center’s lawsuit claimed that Planning Commission and public were "hostile."
After another outcry from the assembled citizens, Taylor had the chambers cleared while the council made its unanimous vote in favor of the mosque. Several citizens were escorted out of the building by police during the proceedings.
Taylor said that he continues to believe that Sterling Heights’ planning commission had not acted discriminatorily in denying the construction of the mosque but was based on "legitimate planning and zoning issues." With the settlement, he said, there is no reason to prevent the mosque from being built. Further litigation, he said, could cause further exposure for the city.
U.S. Attorney Barbara L. McQuade prosecuted the lawsuit for the Department of Justice. She was appointed in 2010 by Barack Obama.
An attorney for the mosque, which had filed its own lawsuit against the city in August 2016, was triumphant. "Today is a victory for the U.S. Constitution which continues to withstand the test of time," said mosque attorney Azzam Elder. "It is a proud day for every American especially American Muslims who are residents of Sterling Heights."
In Sterling Heights, 23% of the city's residents are immigrants, one of the highest percentages in the metropolitan Detroit area. The area is also home to Christians of Middle Eastern origin -- especially Catholic and Orthodox Chaldeans, Assyrians, and Syriacs, who constitute 12% of Sterling Height's population. The area near the mosque is a center of life of Chaldean Catholics from Iraq, where there are Iraqi restaurants, centers, and grocery stores. There is an 11,500-square-foot center of the Chaldean Community Foundation, which is close to the area proposed for the new mosque.
In a tweet to activist Pamela Gellar, Mayor Taylor wrote "You're an idiot. Nothing was forced on us. Trump's own DOJ appointee approved the settlement. Ever heard of the US Constitution?" It was not clear from the tweet whether the mayor was referring to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was appointed by President Trump, or to US Attorney McQuade. In McQuade's case, she was appointed by Barack Obama.