A Muslim group is suing Culpeper County, Va., for blocking its efforts to build a mosque in the area, the second such lawsuit against the county over the issue.
The Islamic Center of Culpeper argues that in refusing to grant the group a sewage permit, county officials violated federal law and the Constitution.
The lawsuit filed Thursday in federal court is not the first challenging Culpeper’s permit denial. The Justice Department sued the county in December on similar grounds.
While the county board members who voted against the permit said they were doing so on technical grounds, both lawsuits argue the true motivation was an outpouring of anti-Muslim sentiment in the community.
The Muslim group’s legal action comes as the Justice Department is making the transition between the Obama and Trump presidential administrations, but an attorney for the organization says he expects the federal lawsuit to continue.
“We have no indication or no reason to believe that the DOJ is going to take any different position or not vigorously defend this case,” said attorney Johnathan Smith of the legal advocacy group Muslim Advocates, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Islamic Center. “It’s our expectation that they would do so and our hope that they would do so.”
But, he said, the center is able to make claims under the state and federal Constitution that the Justice Department cannot. While both lawsuits argue Culpeper ran afoul of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the Islamic group contends that its rights were also violated under the First and 14th amendments to the Constitution and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.
If the county would grant the group a permit to pump and haul away sewage on the site it purchased for the mosque, Smith said, the lawsuit would not be necessary. “The county has not been interested,” he said. “It’s unfathomable and unjustified, but unfortunately [it’s] the situation that we find ourselves in.”
The center is also seeking damages for expenses incurred by the delayed permit. The rural county’s small Muslim community has been worshiping in a small house on the lot of an auto dealership owned by a congregant.
Both lawsuits, which are filed in the Western District of Virginia, note that the permit vote was pulled off the board’s regular calendar at the request of a local conservative activist, Kurt Christensen. He sent an email to county officials and local media saying: “I understand the Islamic Center of Culpeper wishes to rehabilitate the existing home and use it on a weekly basis as a place of prayer. …..Hmmmmmmmmm. . . ”
And both lawsuits say churches had received the same permit under similar circumstances.
County Administrator John Egertson, the lawsuits note, asked a colleague, “Why is this request subject to more scrutiny and tighter interpretation of the policy than all the past requests?”
Egertson did not return a request for comment on the new lawsuit. He told The Washington Post last year that the board “acted within their policy, and they acted fairly and consistently.”
Bobbi Jo Alexis, an attorney for Culpeper, noted that the county had moved to dismiss the similar Justice Department lawsuit.
“My client has done nothing wrong,” Alexis said. “There was no discrimination.”
When the permit was denied in a 4-to-3 vote last April, the move was celebrated by the crowd in attendance and on anti-Muslim websites. The three board members who voted for the permit said they had been barraged with calls and emails expressing concerns over Islamist terrorism.
A day after Attorney General Jeff Sessions was sworn in, the government filed a brief defending its lawsuit against Culpeper. But some religious freedom advocates worry that under Sessions such civil rights cases will no longer be aggressively pursued. The Justice Department has already reversed its position in a high-profile Texas voting rights case.
“Since the election, there has been some concern that the civil rights statute (RLUIPA) might go underenforced by the Justice Department, or selectively enforced only in favor of certain faiths,” said Daniel Mach, director of the American Civil Liberties Union program on freedom of religion and belief. However, he noted that parallel lawsuits in these kinds of cases are common.
The ACLU filed an amicus brief in the Justice Department lawsuit.