Mosque Moratorium Could Run Afoul Of Federal Law
Newton County will hold a town hall meeting Monday evening on a proposed mosque and Islamic cemetery that have raised the concerns of local residents.
Last Tuesday, after hearing from those concerned residents, county officials blocked the project by passing a five-week moratorium on the construction of all religious buildings in the county.
That decision could put the county on the wrong side of a federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA.
“The motivation for this kind of law is the idea that towns and cities discriminate against religious groups by arbitrarily granting permits to majority religions and denying them to minority religions,” said Eric Segall, law professor at Georgia State University.
The law works to protect religious groups from “discrimination-through-zoning” when it comes to their buildings and gatherings.
Between 2010 and 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice opened 45 RLUIPA investigations around the country and filed eight different lawsuits accusing local governments of zoning discrimination.
One of those suits hits close to home. In 2011, the Justice Department sued the City of Lilburn in Gwinnett County for trying to block a mosque there. Under Federal scrutiny, city officials eventually overturned their decision.
Lawyer Emmet Bondurant, who filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Lilburn mosque for the Anti-Defamation League, said it’s not uncommon for local governments to use zoning to try to block minority religious groups. However, he said that’s often a hard sell.
“For example, if this particular congregation wants to build in an area which is already zoned for religious use, then the community has a good deal of difficulty saying: ‘This church would create a problem that a Methodist or Baptist church wouldn’t create,’” Bondurant said.
Despite the current moratorium, local zoning laws allow for places of worship anywhere in Newton County. The county also has rules preventing lawmakers from placing undue regulations on groups looking to build places of worship.
In a statement last week, County Manager John Kerr acknowledged the role RLUIPA could play in the fight over the mosque. Efforts to reach Newton County lawmakers Monday to comment on any possible violations of the law were unsuccessful.