Public officials in Maryland are suing the builder of a retirement community where homes were sold only to Muslims, accusing him of defamation after he accused them of religious discrimination.
Gemcraft Homes chief executive Bill Luther is the builder behind River Run, an unfinished development slated for about 35 acres in Joppatowne, in Harford County, about 20 miles northeast of Baltimore. In recent months, the county has hotly debated the fate of the property.
Luther, who lives in the county, teamed up with a group of Ahmadiyya Muslims, adherents of a branch of Islam that preaches tolerance and faces repression from other Muslims around the globe, to build a retirement community for its older members.
Units initially were sold only to Muslims, as the group said high demand didn't necessitate wider advertising. But after local residents complained — some alleging fair-housing violations while being accused of Islamophobia — Luther said River Run was open to all buyers.
As Harford County delayed permits for the property, citing questions about storm water management and other concerns, Luther filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against county officials and criticized them in the media.
"I've never seen such discrimination," he told The Washington Post earlier this month. "It's sickening. I don't know what the heck they are doing." He also accused officials of "discrimination against people of the Islamic faith" on radio station WBAL.
Those comments were cited in a complaint by Harford County officials filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland — some of the same county officials Luther originally sued. The plaintiffs include the county executive and county attorney.
"This statement is defamatory in tending to injure third-party plaintiffs in their profession and employment, and further, in impugning them to be prejudiced and bigoted," their complaint read. "Mr. Luther made these false statements with actual malice, in that he knew or should have known that the statements were false."
A county spokeswoman declined to comment on the suit, which seeks $1 million in damages.
In a statement from his attorney, Luther said it is "unfortunate whenever public officials feel the need to sue their own citizenry for defamation when citizens exercise their freedom of speech."
He continued: "In this country, every person has the right to express his or her opinions in response to government action. I will not be intimidated by the defamation claim. The county should abandon these kinds of tactics and allow the innocent home buyers to move into their homes."
Faheem Younus, a doctor who specializes in infectious diseases and who teamed up with Luther on the River Run project, criticized the county for the defamation suit and delays, saying he wished for a more amicable resolution. He held town-hall meetings, including one at a mosque, to explain the Ahmadiyya faith and reassure Joppatowne residents, some of whom expressed concern about Islamic terrorism.
"We still believe that this is a simple misunderstanding blown out of proportion," he said. "There is no going back. This is truly a battle between love and hate."