Daily Herald: Mosque requests raising questions in DuPage

For area Muslims, practicing their faith can require traveling to mosques outside their communities or gathering in residential homes to pray.

Now after years of fundraising and preparation, several groups want to move ahead with plans for their own places of worship in DuPage County.

What no one anticipated is that they would proceed at the same time.

Zoning cases are pending for five groups with plans to open a mosque or a religious building in unincorporated areas of the county.

Three of the organizations are seeking DuPage’s permission to build new mosques, while a fourth — Islamic Center of Western Suburbs — wants to use an existing house near West Chicago as a prayer center.

The fifth group, Lombard-based DarusSalam Foundation, is planning to add more parking for a mosque it’s constructing along the south side of North Avenue, just west of Swift Road.

County board member Tony Michelassi, who heads the board’s development committee, said it’s “heavily coincidental” to have so many Muslim groups with zoning requests.

“But it was bound to happen,” he said. “At some point, there was going to be a time when Muslims as a whole would have a lot of cases coming before the county because they’re looking to find a home of their own to worship in.”

Faiyaz Hussain, a volunteer representative of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, said the proposals are a reflection of the growing Muslim community. There are more than 400,000 Muslim Americans living in the Chicago area, according to the council. Hussain said it’s not uncommon for worshippers to travel significant distances to visit one of the estimated 120 mosques in the Chicago area.

“I live in Lisle,” he said. “But I travel all the way to Villa Park to go the mosque that I grew up in. It certainly would be great if there was one closer.”

Some of the proposals being reviewed by DuPage have resulted in upset neighbors countered by claims of religious discrimination.

Neighbors say they were “stunned” and “disappointed” with DuPage’s zoning board of appeals taking a second look at the proposal from Islamic Center of Western Suburbs. They want the zoning panel to stand by an earlier decision to reject the group’s petition for a conditional-use permit.

Meanwhile, the county board’s development committee today is expected to continue its review of Muslim Educational and Cultural Center of America’s request for a conditional-use permit to build a mosque along 91st Street near Willowbrook.

Last week, the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations denounced the county board’s 15-2 decision to deny a height variance request for MECCA’s proposal. The group sought permission to exceed the county’s height restriction of 36 feet so it could have a 69-foot-tall dome and 79-foot-tall minaret.

CAIR-Chicago officials claim that no other religious institution is known to have faced the height restriction.
“There’s indications that the reason for the denial was merely because of their religious affiliation,” said Kevin Vodak, a staff attorney.

The chapter already has filed a federal lawsuit against DuPage claiming Irshad Learning Center’s constitutional rights were violated when that group’s proposal to build an educational center near Naperville was rejected.

But when it comes to the MECCA proposal, county board member Jeff Redick said the group simply failed to meet the legal standard for the height variance. He said his vote against the request had nothing to do with religion.

“When I am up for all hours of the night reviewing this stuff and trying to go through it in a non-biased manner … and then to have this thrown at me,” Redick said, “that’s simply a red herring.”

There are also concerns about a DuPage proposal to prohibit religious facilities and other places of assembly in unincorporated residential areas. The proposed zoning law amendment is expected to be reviewed next month by the county’s zoning board of appeals.

“It just seems very suspicious at this stage — when a number of Islamic institutions are seeking permits to obtain their ability to establish their religious practices in residential areas — that there’s a proposal that would ban any type of new religious use,” Vodak said.

County officials say the reason for the proposed text amendment is the unincorporated residential areas of DuPage don’t have the infrastructure needed to support new places of assembly. Existing roads, sewers, and septic and well systems simply weren’t designed for the uses, they argue.

Still, several organizations representing various faiths are opposing the changes. One of those groups, DuPage United, wants the proposal to be rewritten.

“We find the current text amendment to be very restrictive with a cookie-cutter approach to a much more complex issue,” said Amy Lawless Ayala, a lead organizer with DuPage United. “We think it is critical that DuPage County embrace a much more welcoming approach to institutions, such as churches, mosques, temples and synagogues (that) play a critical role in the betterment of our community.”

County board member Grant Eckhoff said the controversy is one reason so many religious groups want to build now. In addition to proposals from Muslim groups, DuPage is expected to review plans for two new churches in the coming months.

“There’s been talk about banning religious institutions in residential areas,” said Eckhoff, who is vice chairman of the development committee. “I think everybody is filing now so they come in under the old ordinance and don’t risk having to build in commercial or institutional areas.”

Mark Daniel, an attorney who represents several of the Muslim groups with zoning requests, said religious groups prefer to build in unincorporated areas because of the availability of land.

“The unincorporated areas have larger lots,” Daniel said. “In municipalities, you have a handful of issues that you’re going to have to face. It’s either going to be zoning combined with lot size or land value.”

He said he believes the zoning law amendments as drafted would “sound a death knell for most religious uses” in unincorporated residential areas.

In the meantime, groups such as Muslim Community Association of the Western Suburbs are hoping to build mosques that could serve as community centers. Its proposed 43,000-square-foot mosque near Lombard would have a gymnasium, library and classrooms.

“More of a good thing isn’t necessarily bad,” Hussain said. “Let’s have more community centers where we can do good — just like a lot of churches do — and help neighborhoods.”