The City of Horn Lake is being sued over its decision earlier this year to deny the construction of a mosque in the city limits.
The 38-page document has been filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi by the American Civil Liberties Union, both on a state and national basis, on behalf of the Abraham House of God. Church leaders had sought to build a mosque on Church Road between Fogg and Horn Lake roads. The move was initially rejected by the City Planning Commission in late February and rejected again by the Board of Aldermen at an April meeting.
The plaintiffs in the case base the lawsuit on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA, stating the denial is a violation on constitutional grounds under religious discrimination. The lawsuit also said the decision was unconstitutional because it violates the First and 14th Amendments Free Exercise Clause by prohibiting the free exercise of religion.
Riyadh Elkhayyat and Maher Abuirshaid had proposed building the mosque for the Muslim community of DeSoto County. The complaint states there are 13 churches in the city of Horn Lake but followers of the Muslim faith must travel to Memphis for their worship opportunities.
They had asked that land they own and zoned Agricultural Residential (or AR) be allowed to house the mosque. Horn Lake city ordinances allow churches to be built on AR-zoned land.
However, residents in the area protested the building of the worship center due to safety, noise and traffic concerns.
The final vote by the Board of Aldermen came with Alderman John Jones making the motion for denial and Alderman Donnie “Chigger” White seconding the motion. Jones and White are no longer on the Board of Aldermen, along with another Alderman, Charlie Roberts. All three failed in their election bids this summer, Jones and Roberts for re-election and White lost a primary attempt to be elected Mayor.
In the lawsuit, Roberts is said to have apologized to Elkhayyat and Abuirshaid for his vote and the board’s treatment, after Roberts had visited a mosque in Memphis.
In the final vote, Alderwoman LaShonda Johnson voted against the motion to deny and Alderman Jackie Bostick voted “absent”, making for a 5-1 decision against the mosque.
Noise and traffic issues were said to be reasons for denial, but in the lawsuit, the plaintiffs state there is no evidence to support the claim.
The ACLU filing also stated board members have an anti-Muslim prejudice and “did not work very hard to hide the true reason they denied approval for the project,” according to the lawsuit.
The document filed in U.S. District Court stated there are between 15-20 Muslim families who reside in DeSoto County.
Elkhayyat and Abuirshaid are seeking immediate approval of the site plan for the mosque and that the denial vote be made null and void on constitutional grounds, along with attorneys’ fees and costs of the lawsuit.
Horn Lake Mayor Allen Latimer wrote in an email the city was commenting on the case because it is a pending litigation matter.
The ACLU held a news conference about the lawsuit after it was filed. Comments below are from a news release sent the DeSoto County News by the ACLU.
“The city’s decision was clearly motivated by anti-Muslim bigotry,” said ACLU of Mississippi Legal Director Josh Tom. “People of every faith should have a safe place to practice their religion, and we intend to make sure that’s the case in Horn Lake and DeSoto County.”
Heather Weaver, senior staff attorney for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, said, “The freedom to worship is one of our most fundamental rights. By discriminating against our clients simply because they are Muslim, Horn Lake officials violated that right, and they must be held accountable.”
“The Muslims of DeSoto County and Northern Mississippi have the right to practice their religion and join together in a local place of worship,” said Jonathan Youngwood, Global Co-Chair of the Litigation Practice at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP. “It is unfortunate that litigation is necessary – but it is important that Mr. Elkhayyat, Mr. Abuirshaid and their community be permitted to build the Abraham House of God.”
You may read the lawsuit document here.