FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
HORN LAKE, Miss. – Horn Lake officials unlawfully denied zoning approval for a proposed mosque due to anti-Muslim bias, according to a federal lawsuit filed today by the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP. Just before holding a vote on the mosque’s site plan, one Horn Lake Alderman ominously warned, “if you let them build it, they will come” and encouraged his fellow board members to “stop it before it gets here.”
Filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi, the complaint for Abraham House of God v. City of Horn Lake notes that city officials denied approval for the mosque even though it would be located on property zoned for houses of worship, and the mosque’s proposed site plan “met or exceeded” all requirements for approval, according to staff employed by the City’s Planning Commission.
The zoning proceedings held by Horn Lake’s Planning Commission and Board of Aldermen were filled with anti-Muslim sentiment. After rejecting the mosque’s site plan, an Alderman defended the decision by claiming that the plaintiffs’ “religion says they can lie or do anything to the Jews or gentiles because we’re not Muslims.”
Alderman Charlie Roberts subsequently admitted that the city had “stepped over the line” and had only rejected the site plan “because they’re Muslims.”
The lawsuit, brought on behalf of the mosque and the two local religious leaders who founded it, alleges that the city’s actions violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which provides heightened protections for houses of worship in zoning proceedings, and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The complaint asks the federal district court to issue an injunction allowing construction of the mosque. “There are 13 churches in Horn Lake and 132 churches in DeSoto County, but not one mosque,” plaintiff Riyadh Elkhayyat, co-founder of the Abraham House of God mosque, explained.
Noting that he must travel to Tennessee with his wife and six children to attend prayer services, he added, “The Abraham House of God would give my family and other Muslims within the community a local house of worship where we can gather to pray communally, observe Islamic holidays, educate our children in our faith, and form a religious congregation. I was dismayed by the anti-Muslim reaction to the proposed mosque. We should be able to practice our faith freely and without discrimination, just like everyone else.”
Plaintiff Maher Abuirshaid, who co-founded the Abraham House of God with Mr. Elkhayyat, agreed: “A local mosque is critical for my family and the Muslim community in DeSoto County to practice our religion. I hope the city does the right thing by reversing this discriminatory decision.”
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.”
To view the complaint, click here.
To watch a recording of the news conference, click here.
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