CULPEPER, VA. — The small Muslim community here used to pray in the historic Amtrak station, where Lyndon B. Johnson kicked off a 1960 whistle-stop tour. When a local history museum moved into the space in 2014, they shifted to an empty home next to an auto business.
After years of drifting, the group of about 12 to 20 Muslims who show up regularly for Friday prayers want a more permanent place of worship. So they set out to build a mosque in a more rural area outside town.
But those plans were put on hold in April, when the county denied them a permit to haul waste from the property, which is too undeveloped for sewer service. Now the Justice Department is investigating whether that decision was based on more than the technicalities of development — and amounts to illegal religious discrimination.
“We just want our rights to be fulfilled,” said Fuad Abu-Taleb, who leads Culpeper’s Muslim prayers.
The investigation is one of 14 being conducted by the Justice Department into potential discrimination by state and local governments involving land use or jails. While the agency declined to provide details of those, more than a third of Justice Department investigations into land or institutional religious discrimination in the past six years involve Muslims — a striking statistic given that Muslims make up about 1 percent of the U.S. population.
In a similar case in July, the Justice Department filed suit against a township in Pennsylvania, alleging that it discriminated when it denied zoning approval to a group that wanted to build a mosque.
In June, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, noted that the department sometimes sees “overt animus” toward religious groups seeking to build. “But we also see people organizing to try to block construction of minority places of worship often adopting more subtle tactics,” she said.
There is no question that the decision on what would normally be a little-noticed development matter in Culpeper got a lot of attention. A crowd packed the county government meeting and cheered when the motion to deny the permit was introduced. Board members reported receiving scores of calls and emails on the normally obscure land-use concern. The decision, made in a 4-to-3 vote, was celebrated on anti-Islam websites.
Ira Lupu, a professor at George Washington University Law School, said the federal investigators will conduct interviews and examine the record to look for “anything to suggest that they have granted these permits in cases where there’s no animosity towards the people applying, and maybe even a preference.”
County Administrator John Egertson said he was “very confident that when they finish their review, they will find that we are completely compliant.” The board, he said, “acted within their policy, and they acted fairly and consistently.”
The board members who opposed the Islamic Center said they did so on technical grounds. Opponents noted that although county staff recommended approval, the pump-and-haul permits are designed for situations where no other option exists. The Islamic group had not yet finished buying the land where the mosque would sit; the board members who voted against them argued that they could simply find a different site.
“I’m not anti-anybody — I served with every race and every religion in the Army, and everybody bleeds red blood,” said Bill Chase, who proposed the motion to deny the permit. “This request was from land that had not been bought . . . it wasn’t an emergency situation; it wasn’t an existing structure.”
A review of pump-and-haul permit decisions dating to 1992 shows that most were granted to existing buildings, mostly churches, on land that could not accommodate normal septic systems. But several went to organizations that had not yet built on or bought land. One was a church that in 1993 said it needed the permit to move forward on buying a site. One was a construction company that in 1995 wanted to buy a property and turn it into an office. Chase argued for that permit, which was approved unanimously. Another was to build an office trailer for a company’s disabled worker. Again, Chase advocated for the permit despite opposition from county staff. So did Steve Walker, who was one of three other board members who opposed the mosque’s permit.
In nearly every case, there was no clear date for sewer service to be extended. In most, it was expected within a few years, as is the case for the mosque’s proposed location. Only one of the past 19 pump-and-haul permit requests has been rejected.
County board member Sue Hansohn, who voted to grant the permit, has expressed concerns that fear of religious extremism in the wake of terrorist attacks abroad influenced the push for a denial.
“The majority of the calls and emails I had was because of the religion, not because it’s a pump and haul or environmental reasons,” Hansohn said before the vote. “I understand people who are so afraid because of what has happened in Europe, I understand that totally. But I don’t think in our country we should turn down somebody because of religion reasons.”
The two other board members who supported the mosque also publicly talked about issues of religious freedom and discrimination and noted that such permits had been fairly freely given in the past.
Walker said his opposition to the mosque stemmed entirely from the fact that the group did not yet own the property. He was not on the board, he said, when previous applicants had gotten permits without owning land.
“I try to keep it real simple,” he said. Noting that the Islamic Center has since closed on the property, he said, “They have the right to reapply.”
That appears likely. While Islamic Center leaders said in April that they would hire lawyers, they now say they hope to win approval without legal action.
“Maybe they will change their minds,” said Mohammad Nawabe, who owns the auto dealership next to where his fellow Muslims worship. “Every Muslim community starts with a hard time.”
Several local Muslims said they had experienced discrimination in the area but did not want to be named because they feared retribution in a county with fewer than 50,000 residents. Seventy-one percent of those residents are non-Hispanic whites, according to recent census data; the nonwhite population is mostly Hispanic and black.
The county sheriff has previously come under fire for hosting a seminar on “Jihadi Networks in America” led by a former FBI agent who claims terrorists control most leading American Muslim groups. The sheriff advertised that he would host a similar seminar on Saturday , featuring the same ex-agent and a former pastor who says mosques lead to the destruction of Western culture.
One resident, who said he did not want to hurt his business by discussing religious tensions openly, said someone had made an obscene gesture at his wife when she wore a headscarf into Walmart. Now, when she shops there, she takes it off.
“It’s not like Northern Virginia, like Fairfax or Alexandria here,” he said. “Here, you’re going back to the 1950s.”
However, Nawabe emphasized that he has also seen an outpouring of support since the rejection. A native of Afghanistan, the 54-year-old has lived in the county for six years and Virginia for several decades.
“I love Culpeper; I love Virginia,” he said. “I’m a country boy.”
It’s not clear how long the Justice Department’s investigation will take. If it concludes there was discrimination, the federal government can sue Culpeper.
According to the Justice Department, the vast majority of similar investigations involving non-Muslims are resolved by an agreement between the federal government and the locality before any legal action is taken. But only 1 in 5 cases involving Muslims is resolved without a lawsuit.
Optimistically, the Islamic group is continuing to prepare the site for building. A ramshackle home on their land has been torn down and the land cleared of debris.
Roger Southard, 54, lives with three tiny but territorial dogs in a house just behind the site.
“I don’t have a problem with it; it’s a free country,” he said of the potential mosque. But, he added, “I’m afraid if they do build it, that maybe one of the people that may not care for it, I’m actually scared that people might shoot at it.”
Meanwhile, weekly services continue in the home by the auto dealership. On a recent Friday afternoon, 17 men clustered in a living room stripped of furniture and painted white. The theme of the sermon: sabr, or patience.