Federal attorneys side with mosque in expansion fight

by: Mike Petchenik Updated:

ALPHARETTA, Ga. - In court filings this week, United States Department of Justice attorneys conclude the city of Alpharetta may have discriminated against a mosque by denying its plans to expand.

The Islamic Center of North Fulton wants to tear down its existing facility to build a much larger one on its Rucker Road property. 

“They’re in a very inadequate facility,” attorney Doug Dillard told Channel 2’s Mike Petchenik.  “They don’t have adequate facilities for them to bathe properly before they worship, to pray properly, for them to listen to the imam.”

In 2010, the city voted down the center’s plans, 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.

On Tuesday, DOJ attorneys filed a “friend of the court” brief, calling into question Forrester’s decision.

“The district court applied an erroneous legal standard in granting the city’s summary judgment motion,” the brief said.  “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.”

Attorneys also wrote that the evidence suggests the city discriminated against the mosque.

“The fact that the city’s own community development staff found that the proposed mosque will have no greater effect on the surrounding area than many churches located nearby  ...  is sufficient to raise a reasonable inference of discrimination,” the brief said.

Dillard told Petchenik the department’s intervention is “significant,” because it waited until the case was on appeal to render an opinion about the situation.

“They’re saying in their opinion, the religious land use law was violated, and the lower court didn’t follow existing case law,” he said.

DOJ attorneys have asked the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to send the case back to district court for reconsideration.

Petchenik contacted the city of Alpharetta for comment, but its attorney didn’t respond.

Longtime neighbor William Jordan scoffed at the notion the city discriminated against the mosque.

“I think they got equal treatment,” he said.  “As far as religion, we have no qualms with that at all.”

Jordan said neighbors were concerned about the architecture of the proposed building and any additional traffic that could come with the expansion.

“If they just came in and redid that building, we’d have no complaints at all,” he said.