Thursday, September 23, 2010

Records show how Ky. zoning board was pressured to reject permit for storefront mosque

A Western Kentucky city zoning board's denial of a permit to open a mosque has drawn legal action by the American Civil Liberties Union, raising questions about the reasons for the denial. The Mayfield board cited parking and building capacity issues in its denial of a Somali man's request, but an open records request from religion reporter Peter Smith of The Courier-Journal reveals the board faced pressure on both sides of the debate that had little to do with land-use issues.

"The application was caught up in a nationwide debate over the expansion of mosques across the United States, with opponents fearing they could breed terrorism and the implementation of Islamic law, and proponents saying Muslims want to live and worship peacefully under the same rights other Americans enjoy," Smith, reports, offering an important example of the value of traditional investigative reporting even on a beat that is feature-oriented.

A letter from the ACLU said "the Board of Zoning Adjustment's rejection on Aug. 24 was 'procedurally defective,' based on false assumptions and violated constitutional and statutory protections for freedom of religion," Smith writes. Those assertions will rest partly on an Aug. 20 e-mail exchange that City Planner Brad Rogers had with a local resident. Rogers said he had "many concerns" that the Somalis "were free to practice their religion," adding, "Although we don't agree with it, and there are radical elements in some parts of the world, we have to be tolerant until they do something they are not supposed to do. The city cannot legally prevent a mosque from being built, as long as codes are met."

In another e-mail conversation Rogers told a supporter the controversy was a "media driven mess." Several board members said during the meeting when the permit was denied the issue was not one religion versus another, and that everyone had to be treated the same, but an overflow crowd expressed anti-Muslim sentiments. The board reversed its original decision to approve the permit even after acknowledging it failed to let the proponent of the mosque speak at the hearing. "The board made the right decision when it originally granted the permit," Michael Aldridge, ACLU of Kentucky executive director, said in a statement. "It is troubling that it reversed course when there were no changes in circumstances." (Read more)

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