Muslim civil rights group to hold news conference today on judge's ruling
(CHICAGO, IL, 4/1/2013) — The Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-Chicago) today welcomed the decision by District Court Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer granting summary judgment to the civil rights organization's client, Irshad Learning Center, an Islamic religious institution primarily serving the Iranian community.
Irshad Learning Center (ILC) applied for a zoning permit to use a former school in unincorporated DuPage County as a mosque and Islamic school. The DuPage County Board denied the permit without explanation in January 2010.
While the Zoning Board of Appeals (the first governmental entity to consider the petition) repeatedly recommended denying the permit, the County Development Committee supported ILC's petition with various conditions.
CAIR-Chicago filed a lawsuit against the county and members of the board on behalf of ILC on April 8, 2010.
ILC's complaint alleged violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as well as state constitutional and zoning law.
After defeating the county's attempt to dismiss the lawsuit in March 2011, CAIR-Chicago's Litigation Director Kevin Vodak engaged in extensive discovery, reviewing thousands of pages of documents, deposing more than a dozen county officials, and retaining an expert witness, a planning and zoning consultant who has almost 40 years of experience in land planning. ILC officers and their prior zoning counsel were also deposed.
Both CAIR-Chicago and the county sought summary judgment in the matter, requesting a decision from the court before proceeding to a jury trial.
On Friday, Judge Pallmeyer issued a 70-page decision granting judgment in favor of ILC on claims under RLUIPA's substantial burden provision, the First Amendment, the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and state zoning law.
Based on the detailed factual record, Judge Pallmeyer held that the Zoning Board of Appeals relied on, “erroneous findings or impermissible speculation,” and the county's “repeated errors, speculation, and refusal to impose conditions support an inference that the County subjected ILC to a substantial burden,” on its free exercise of religion.
As a result, the court reversed the county board's denial of a permit to ILC and ordered that the board issue the permit, “absent a material change in the circumstances.”
Mahmood Ghassemi, an ILC board member, said he was “delighted to hear” of the judge's ruling and said the group had been renting space in a Woodridge church. “Hopefully this is the end of our struggle in terms of having our own permanent place,” he said.
ILC has been seeking an established location for its activities, primarily Thursday evening prayer services and Saturday educational classes, over the past 10 years, and most of its members reside in the county.
Due to the denial of the permit, ILC has been expending resources maintaining the vacant property, including paying property taxes when all religious institutions in the county are tax-exempt, as well as renting space in a Woodridge church. In addition to securing the permit, CAIR-Chicago will be seeking damages against the county to compensate ILC for its losses, as well as attorney's fees and costs litigating the case.
“We are delighted by Judge Pallmeyer's well-reasoned and detailed opinion, which represents not only a victory for ILC but for all Muslim institutions facing arbitrary and capricious decisions from their local governments,” said CAIR-Chicago Litigation Director Vodak. “We are hopeful the county fully complies with the decision and expeditiously ensures that ILC receives appropriate compensation for burdening its religious freedom.”
Vodak said Irshad Learning Center is one example of many Muslim religious institutions across the country that met resistance in 2010, as both Muslim Educational & Cultural Center of America (MECCA) and the Islamic Center of Western Suburbs (ICWS) faced fierce opposition from neighbors and county officials.
While MECCA's permit was approved, the institution was forced to forego building a proposed dome and minaret in accordance with religious custom. ICWS filed a lawsuit in August 2012 similar to ILC's claims, and this matter remains pending in discovery.
DuPage officials also proposed amendments to the zoning ordinance that would ban any new religious institutions in residential areas, citing an “oversaturation of religious institutions” in the area, but this proposal was ultimately dropped.
CAIR-Chicago will continue to resolve the ILC matter and monitor any other difficulties Muslim entities face in DuPage County.
CAIR-Chicago is a chapter of America's largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization. Its mission is to enhance the understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding.
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CONTACT: CAIR-Chicago Litigation Director, Kevin Vodak, firstname.lastname@example.org, 312.212.1520; CAIR-Chicago Executive Director, Ahmed Rehab, email@example.com, 312.212.1520 or 202.870.0166 (cell)