The Justice Department filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia against Culpeper County, Virginia. The complaint alleges that the county violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) when it denied a sewage permit application to the Islamic Center of Culpeper (ICC), effectively preventing the ICC from building a small mosque on land that it had purchased in the county. The land is located in a zoning district where religious land use is permitted. On the same day, Attorney General Loretta Lynch spoke at a mosque to decry incidents of alleged hate crimes committed against Muslims.
The complaint filed by Lynch's department alleges that Culpepper imposed a substantial burden on the Muslim congregation’s exercise of religion and discriminated against the Muslim group based on religion when it refused to grant a “pump and haul” permit to allow the ICC to transport sewage from the ICC’s property to a point of disposal. Culpepper County had told the ICC that the permit because the soil at the site would not support a septic system. The complaint alleges that since 1992, the county has considered 26 applications and never denied a pump and haul permit to a commercial or religious use prior to the ICC.
“The Constitution and federal law specifically protect the freedom of religious communities to establish houses of worship,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division. “The Justice Department will continue to work tirelessly to protect every person’s right to assemble for religious exercise,” she said in a statement. Gupta has been highly visible in similar cases, having come to DOJ from the American Civil Liberties Union.
For his part, U.S. Attorney John P. Fenwick stated, “Religious liberty is a fundamental right in our country and this case seeks to uphold that right.” He added, “We will continue to work with the experienced lawyers with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice to protect the residents of the Western District of Virginia from unlawful discrimination.”
The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons act of 2000, prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion and protects against encroachment on the exercise of religion.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch was joined by Gupta today in a luncheon ceremony at a mosque in Sterling, Virginia. In opening her remarks about alleged incidents of Islamophobia, Lynch said, after pronouncing a Muslim greeting, “When one of us falls, we all have to step up without regard for our own safety...When one of us is threatened, we all have to speak out...When one of us is in harm’s way, we’re all in harm’s way.” She brought up the FBI’s report on hate crimes committed against Muslims and others that was released last month. Lynch said that there has been a rise in opposition in some communities to the building of mosques and Islamic centers. In response, Lynch said that her office has filed ten lawsuits to challenge the alleged discrimination on basis of RLUIPA.
“There is a pernicious thread that connects the act of violence against a woman wearing a hijab to the assault on a transgender man to the tragic deaths of nine innocent African Americans during a Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina,” Lynch remarked at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center in Sterling. “There is a thread that links all of those, and when one of us is threatened, all of us are threatened.” Her department claims that the number of hate crimes reported in the country has increased by about 6 percent in 2015, led by a surge in attacks targeting Muslims. A total of 5,818 hate crimes were reported in 2015, a “sobering indication of how much work remains to be done,” Lynch said.
Lynch did not mention President-elect Donald Trump or his proposals, such as limiting the number of immigrants from countries noted for Islamist violence. “I know that many Americans are feeling uncertainty and anxiety as we witness the recent eruption of divisive rhetoric and hateful deeds. I know that many Americans are wondering if they are in danger simply because of what they look like or where they pray,” Lynch said however, “I know that some are wondering whether the progress we have made at such great cost, and over so many years, is in danger of sliding backwards.”
Lynch spoke one week after a terrorist attack on the campus of Ohio State University by a Somali Muslim man who rammed his car into a crowd of fellow students and then attempted to stab others to death. In addition, Gary Nathaniel Moore -- a Muslim born in the United States -- pleaded guilty to setting his own mosque on fire in Houston on Christmas Day 2015. At the time, Muslim groups such as the Council on American Islamic Relations suggested that it was a hate crime.
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