CHICAGO – A Chicago suburb that prevented a Muslim group from converting a vacant building into a mosque will pay the group $580,000 and be required to train city employees on religious land use law, the U.S. Justice Department announced on Tuesday.
In a news release, the department said Des Plaines settled a lawsuit the department brought and another one filed by The Society of American Bosnians and Herzegovinians. The settlements come days after the Justice Department announced that the New Jersey community of Bernards Township had agreed to settle for $3.25 million a similar lawsuit filed by another Islamic group.
"Religious freedom is a fundamental right, and we will not tolerate the unlawful use of zoning or land use restrictions to infringe on that right," Joel R. Levin, Acting United States Attorney of the Northern District of Illinois, said in a statement.
The settlements stem from a 2013 vote by the Des Plaines' City Council to deny the group's rezoning request, and the group sued.
The Justice Department said in the release that its complaint alleged that Des Plaines had treated "non-Muslim religious groups better" than it treated the Bosnian Muslim congregation and did not follow the same land use and zoning procedures it follows for the other groups, including a school and a cultural center.
City Manager Michael G. Bartholomew did not immediately return a call for comment. But at the time the group's lawsuit was filed, aldermen said they denied the rezoning because allowing a house of worship in an industrial park would endanger people walking in the area and cause traffic problems as well as hurt nearby manufacturers.
"I don't care if they're Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, whatever. It's not zoned for that particular area," Alderman Mark Walsten told the Chicago Tribune when the lawsuit was filed in 2013. Whenever there are children involved in an industrial area, I will not have that on my conscience."
Besides the training of city employees in the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, the agreement with the U.S. Attorney's office requires Des Plaines to institute a process to address complaints that the city may have violated that law.
Imam Senad Agic, whose group filed the 2013 lawsuit, said the settlements are a satisfying end to what has been a very trying time, and vindication for a congregation that believed Des Plaines had discriminated against them.
"They broke our hearts when they denied us because these are Bosnian refugees who lost everything," he said. He said that the group found a church in nearby Franklin Park that it has already turned into a mosque. But, he said, the money will "help us do renovations, construction that we need to turn the sanctuary there into a prayer hall."
The legal fight in Des Plaines was one of a number of legal challenges stemming from similar disputes. Last month, not only was there a settlement of a lawsuit in New Jersey, but the U.S. attorney's office in New Jersey confirmed that it is investigating Bayonne, New Jersey, where officials prevented a Muslim group from building a mosque there.