Alpharetta lawyers deny discriminating against mosque

by: Mike Petchenik Updated:

ALPHARETTA, Ga. —

Lawyers for Alpharetta are again disputing allegations the city discriminated against a local mosque when it denied its expansion plans.

The Islamic Center of North Fulton is suing the city, claiming the city wrongly denied its 2010 proposal to tear down and rebuild a much larger facility and that the denial was, in part, because of a supposed agreement the center made with neighbors never to expand beyond its current facility.

In January, U.S. District Judge Owen Forrester ruled he found no such agreement ever existed but still sided with the city, ruling the mosque didn't show the denial put a substantial burden on its members.

"Under the lower court's decision, in our opinion, no church would be able to expand," Doug Dillard, lead attorney for the Rucker Road center, told Channel 2's Mike Petchenik. "When other churches are allowed to have gymnasiums and to have large sanctuaries and to have large prayer areas, they're denying these people that opportunity."

In June, the Department of Justice filed a "friend of the court" brief, siding with the ICNF. DOJ attorneys wrote the lower court applied an "erroneous legal standard" when it granted Alpharetta's motion to dismiss the case.

"The court should have asked instead whether the denial of the permit actually and substantially inhibits the center's religious exercise, rather than merely inconveniencing it," lawyers wrote.

ICNF officials contend the current facility is inadequate because it doesn't face Mecca and is in disrepair.

This week, Alpharetta responded to the Department of Justice and Anti-Defamation League, which also filed a brief supporting ICNF.

Alpharetta's city attorneys wrote that ICNF isn't immune from zoning laws just because it's a religious institution.

"The burdens are either self-imposed, mere inconveniences or distractions if they are religious in nature," they wrote. "ICNF's proposed expansion is simply out of scale in size, mass, and scale to the property and surrounding area."

Attorneys took direct issue with claims the city allowed other nearby churches to expand, thereby discriminating against ICNF.

"Alpharetta did not make any zoning changes with regard to either property, and therefore, could not have treated those churches more favorably than ICNF," wrote Alpharetta's attorneys.

Dillard argues the city did nothing to keep the other churches from expanding. He has until Sept. 6 to file a response and said he was hopeful the appeals court would hear oral arguments in the appeal.

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