Posted by: Patricia Salkin | August 23, 2018

Fed. Dist. Court in MI Rejects RLUIPA Claims Arising from the Approval of a Consent Judgment for the Construction of a Mosque

This post was authored by Matthew Loeser, Esq.

The case arose from American Islamic Community Center, Inc.’s (“AICC”) attempt to build a mosque in the City of Sterling Heights, which permits places of worship and religious community centers in residential zoned (R-60) areas through special land use. In 2015, the AICC applied for a special land use with the City to build a mosque on Fifteen Mile Road between Ryan Road and Mound Road. The Commission then voted to deny the application. The AICC disagreed with the Commission’s decision, and claimed that the denial was pretext and was truly based upon religious discrimination. The AICC then filed a lawsuit against the City, which alleged multiple violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), as well as a violation of the AICC’s First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion. The parties participated in facilitation with Magistrate Judge Anthony Patti, and fashioned a potential resolution of the lawsuits.

Before the City Council, Mayor Michael Taylor, a named Defendant in these proceedings, warned the audience that any more interruptions would require him to clear Chambers to allow Council to conclude the agenda item. Despite this, the audience members continued to interrupt the meeting multiple times. As a result, Defendant Taylor called another recess and ordered that all audience members except for the press be removed to the vestibule where they could view the proceedings. The Council returned from recess and voted to approve the Consent Judgment.

On appeal, Plaintiffs contend that the City violated the MZEA by failing to give proper notice of the meeting’s agenda item. Here, the record reflected that the City complied with MZEA because it conducted two public hearings on the application before denying it. Additionally, the Consent Judgment was a settlement of the subsequent lawsuits filed by the AICC and DOJ stemming from the Commission’s denial of the application. Moreover, the Zoning Code expressly provided that a public hearing was not required when Council approves a special land use by consent judgment to settle pending litigation. Zoning Code

 

Plaintiffs also sought to invalidate the approval of the Consent Judgment by claiming the City violated the Michigan Open Meetings Act (“OMA”) by removing audience members during the meeting. Here, the Mayor removed audience members only after public comment was completed and 26 interruptions, several warnings, and 3 forced recesses so that Council could conclude the agenda item. The removed audience members were permitted to watch the remainder of the agenda item and live vote through the windows and on television in the vestibule of chambers. Moreover, the entire meeting was streamed live on the City’s website and YouTube channel and was broadcast live on cable television.

Next, Plaintiffs contended that due to the alleged failure to provide proper notice and an opportunity to be heard, Defendants deprived Plaintiffs of their right to due process. Here, Plaintiffs Norgrove, Jabbo, Catcho, and Rrasi did not own property near the location of the proposed mosque. While Youkhanna and McHugh owned real property ¾ of a mile and 3 miles away from the site of the proposed mosque, there was no evidence that they had been deprived of any interest in that property, or that the alleged deprivation was anything other than generalized, unsupported grievances concerning traffic and loss of aesthetic and economic value.

Lastly, Plaintiff Rrasi claimed that her Fourth Amendment rights were violated when she was removed from the City Council meeting. As an initial matter, the meeting was a limited public forum and Defendant Taylor was allowed to restrict non-germane speech and remove individuals who were being disruptive without violating the Constitution. Here, the record revealed that Plaintiff Rrasi approached the dais and used gestures in a threatening manner. She was then escorted out of Chambers when she refused to leave after being called out of order by Defendant Taylor. Accordingly, for the reasons articulated above, Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment was granted.

Youkhanna v City of Sterling Heights, 2018 WL 3647103 (ED MI 8/1/2018)


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