VOA News: Suburban Chicago Muslim Center Denied Permit

The story aired on November 25th

The debate surrounding a proposed Islamic Center in Lower Manhattan shed light on what could be growing religious intolerance in the United States. But despite the public outcry over the so-called Ground Zero mosque, the proposed Islamic Center has not been denied permits.

That’s not the case in suburban Chicago.  Members of the Irshad Learning Center, a Shi’ite congregation in Naperville, Illinois are trying to use an existing building on their property for worship and an education center.  But some residents of the neighborhood have opposed their plans and the county has refused to issue a permit.

At a Methodist church in suburban Chicago, a worship service is underway.

The call to prayer is not for Christians, but for Muslims from the Irshad Learning Center. They temporarily use the hall in the church.

“Irshad Learning Center is a shelter for faith, for people who want to once in a while get together and pray together, worship, and perhaps help their kids get some acquaintance with their faith and cultural background,” said Mojtaba Noursalehi.

Mojtaba Noursalehi is originally from Iran, but is now a U.S. citizen. He’s a member of the Board of the Irshad Learning Center.  He says many members of the Center are of Iranian descent.

“Unlike churches which are on every street corner, there are no mosques especially with our particular kind of background,” he said. “We are looked at here as being from Iran, and in Iran we are looked at as being from the U.S. It’s a very peculiar situation even for our kids.  We have an identity crisis and this is one situation or one opportunity for us to come together and at least put our voices together and worship together and that kind of thing.”

Members of the Irshad Learning Center do not lack money or a location for their own place of worship.  And there’s already a building on the property, a former day care center.  What they do lack is the permission to use it for worship.

“They were denied a special use permit to use the property as a religious institution,” said Kevin Vodak.

Kevin Vodak is an attorney for the Council on American Islamic Relations, a group that advocates for American Muslims. He says denying Irshad a permit violates the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, also known as RLUIPA.

“Basically RLUIPA says that you cannot impose a substantial burden on a religious institution in granting permits or basically allowing a religious institution to use the property as they see fit,” he said.

In April, CAIR filed a federal suit against 18 members of the DuPage County Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals.  The lawsuit claims that denying the special use permit violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the US Constitution. Those amendments guarantee basic rights to all Americans.

“Here in DuPage county officials seem to be more focused on the types of land that’s available in residential areas and want to appease residents’ concerns rather than the rights of religious institutions,” said Vodak.

DuPage county officials declined multiple requests for comment.

But a spokesperson who refused to go on camera said the basis for denying the permit had nothing to do with religion.  He said it had to do with zoning in a residential area.

Several DuPage County board members echoed those concerns at public meetings held after the lawsuit was filed.

“Let it go on the record that any one who thinks this board is anti-Islamic or singling out, we do not it,” said a board member. “And that’s a matter of absolute certainty.”

CAIR attorney Vodak believes the board was influenced by people who live close to the proposed site.

“The concerns that were raised were the lights that would be shown at night from cars and things like that, and it just seems like there are plenty of barriers and the concerns are not legitimate at all,” he said.

Attorneys representing the county have filed a motion to dismiss the case.

As the lawsuit makes its way through the courts, county officials are moving forward with a permanent zoning amendment that would prevent religious institutions from building places of worship in the future – in certain residential areas.