Naperville Sun: Muslim center planners still pressing ahead

The effort to establish a Muslim center on Naperville’s eastern edge was dealt a thumbs-down this week, but officials overseeing the plan are not giving up.naperville.sun

The DuPage County Board on Tuesday voted 10-7 against granting a conditional use permit for the facility on 75th Street east of Naper Boulevard. The center would serve about 30 families, most of them longtime residents of the western suburbs, who do not now have a nearby worship site.

Some of the neighbors near the 3-acre property lobbied the board to turn down the request, saying it would hinder their quality of life. They also maintained that the capacity limits and hours of operation stated in the application would be ignored.

Online polls conducted by The Sun have found varying support among readers for the center. The non-scientific surveys have included one taken this week in which 64 out of 101 respondents said a learning center would be easier to accept if it weren’t to be used by Muslims. Opponents of the plan say it has nothing to do with race or religion.

Immediately after the board’s decision, the applicants said they intend to continue pressing the request, probably taking the issue to court.

“This is not done,” said Mahmood Ghassemi, chairman of the Irshad Learning Center board.

Before the day was out, the matter had been handed to the Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which advocates for religious freedom and civil liberties in the Muslim community.

“It seems that the fight’s not over, and they will try to appeal the decision,” Amina Sharif, the nonprofit’s communications coordinator, said Thursday. “We will be representing them through the appeals process.”

Another Sun poll taken this week found 67 percent of the 96 participants predict a legal challenge would fail, but that’s not what is expected by the three County Board members who represent Naperville and the rest of District 5.

James Healy said he, John Zediker and Tony Michelassi expected the permit to be denied, but they supported its approval because they have been told that a refusal by the county would not stand up in court.

Michelassi heads the board’s Development Committee, which added to the permit request a list of emphasized conditions the center would meet, in the hope of reaching a compromise that would be acceptable to Irshad and its opponents alike. He agreed with Healy that the center’s foes could easily fare worse on appeal.

“It’s definitely still a very real possibility that if the petitioner goes through and takes the request to the courts, none of the conditions that the Development Committee tried to include would apply,” Michelassi said.

Naperville attorney Scott M. Day, who represented Irshad in the permit application, repeated his assertion in a statement released Wednesday that the zoning petition met all of the county’s requirements.

“Under the laws applicable to this case, the county lacks discretion to deny this permit,” said Day, who on Thursday was referring all questions to CAIR.

The statement also suggested that some of those who urged the board to turn down the permit request could be called into court as well. Among them was a South Elgin coordinator of the anti-Islam organization Act! for America. Constance Gavras asserted that Irshad has accepted large donations from the Alavi Foundation, and that the two entities are part of the same organization. The philanthropy, which promotes Persian culture among Iranian-Americans by funding Saturday schools and other Islamic programs, holds a $300,000 mortgage on the Irshad site. Alavi is being investigated by the FBI for possible ties to Iran’s nuclear program, although no charges have been filed.

“We have absolutely no idea whatsoever what the Irshad Learning Center is,” Gavras said shortly before the board voted on the application.

According to the statement, Irshad also is considering “taking appropriate action against those who slandered the organization.”

Sharif confirmed the possibility.

“We are concerned that anti-Muslim sentiments that were expressed by people in and near Naperville during the meeting may have wrongly influenced the decision,” she said. “That is something that concerns us, and that we may challenge.”