By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 8, 2008
The owner of land on which a Muslim sect wanted to erect a worship center in Walkersville filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the town yesterday, alleging that officials discriminated against the Muslims when they denied the sect's building application.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, charges that the town conspired to deny the members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community their constitutional right to practice their religion by denying land-use permits, changing town policy and enacting new laws to keep out the sect.
"I believe in the promise of America, and I will not allow a handful of bigots to deny that promise to these good people," landowner David Moxley said in a statement. Moxley had signed a contract with his father, Robert Moxley, to sell the land to the Ahmadiyyas for $6 million.
However, the Ahmadiyyas say they are no longer interested in building on the rural Frederick County site and will not be a part of the lawsuit because they have left the matter in God's hands.
"We are not going to be participating in any litigation in any way," said Syed Ahmad, spokesman for the group. "We're not thinking about Walkersville anymore."
Moxley plans to press ahead with his lawsuit, according to his attorney, Roman Storzer. "If a positive result occurs, then we would hope that the Ahmadiyyas would consider the use of the property."
Walkersville Town Attorney Danny O'Connor said the town will fight the lawsuit. "The town certainly does deny any wrongdoing with regard to Mr. Moxley and will vigorously defend the lawsuit."
Debate was touched off in Walkersville, a mostly white hamlet of 5,500 people, when the Silver Spring-based sect proposed buying the town's largest farm to build a retreat and worship center.
The 224-acre parcel of land would have served as a residence for the imam and a place of worship for members of the sect. It also would have hosted up to 10,000 people annually for a national convention.
But the plan stirred uneasiness in the town, which has so many churches that some residents call it "God's country." Many residents told reporters they were nervous about the prospect of so many Muslims establishing a presence in their community. Some said they worried the Muslims would be intolerant of the Christian faith. A few said they feared the Ahmadiyya facility could become a breeding ground for terrorists or could make Walkersville a terrorist target.
The Ahmadiyya community, which is distinct from the larger Sunni and Shiite sects, launched a public relations initiative to reach out to Walkersville. It bought advertisements in the local newspaper and sent representatives door-to-door to talk with residents.
In April, the Town Council passed an ordinance prohibiting building places of worship on land zoned for agriculture. And the zoning appeals board denied the Ahmadiyya proposal, saying the facility would attract too much traffic and threaten the town's water supply.
Faced with those actions, the Ahmadiyyas canceled their contract with Moxley and said they would not challenge the town's decision.
Not Moxley. His complaint alleges violations of the Constitution's First Amendment guarantee of the free exercise of religion and the equal-protection provision of the 14th Amendment, because the town allegedly treated the sect differently from nonreligious institutions.
The complaint also alleges that the town violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which bans land-use regulations that discriminate against a religious organization.
Moxley also alleges that the Fair Housing Act was violated because the proposal included a residence for the imam. And he alleges the town violated the Declaration of Rights in the Maryland Constitution by discriminating against the sect.
Despite the lack of participation by the Ahmadiyyas, Storzer said Moxley has standing to file the lawsuit because the Ahmadiyyas cannot pursue the case out of their religious beliefs and because Moxley suffered damage as a result of the town's actions.