A federal court has issued a consent decree ordering Horn Lake to approve a site plan which allows for the construction of a mosque which the city had previously denied.
Under the terms of the consent decree, which the city and the mosque’s developer entered into on Tuesday, January 4, the city must approve the mosque’s site plan and address any other permitting and building-related matters in a timely manner. The city also agreed to pay $25,000 to cover the cost of the legal expenses incurred as a result of the appeals process and attorney’s fees.
“We are heartened and relieved that we were able to move ahead with our plans for a mosque in Horn Lake, which will provide a critical local house of worship for my family and other Muslims in the community to gather and practice our faith without discrimination,” Ray Elk, co-founder of the Abraham House of God mosque, said in a statement.
Horn Lake Mayor Allen Latimer was advised by the city’s lawyer to not comment on the ruling. The city’s response to the lawsuit denied they discriminated against the mosque on the basis of religion.
However, both parties consented to enter into the Consent Decree Order “in the interest of avoiding costly and protracted litigation.” The order also releases the city and their officials, employees, and insurers from any further monetary claims for damages.
“We are very pleased that the parties were able to come to a successful resolution, which upholds the constitutional right of the Muslims of DeSoto County and Northern Mississippi to practice their religion and join together in a local place of worship,” said Jonathan Youngwood of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP.
In entering its rder, the Court stated in the consent decree that after reviewing the allegations of the complaint, “its initial impression is that it presents very serious, and if proven factually accurate, strong allegations of religious discrimination.”
The Board of Aldermen voted 5-1 last April to uphold the planning commission’s decision to deny approval of the proposed site plan, citing concerns over inadequate water pressure for fire protection, as well as concerns over traffic and noise. The property is zoned agricultural and churches are allowed under the Horn Lake ordinances.
The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU-MS, and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLC law firm filed a federal lawsuit on November 3, 2021 on behalf of the mosque and its founders.
The complaint, Abraham House of God v. City of Horn Lake, asked the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi for an injunction allowing the construction of the mosque, arguing that the city’s actions violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which provides heightened protections for houses of worship in zoning proceedings, and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The lawsuit claimed that the mosque met or exceeded all zoning requirements and that city officials discriminated against the mosque based on religion. They pointed to comments made by former Alderman John Jones, who was quoted as saying “If you let them build it, they will come. So I think we need to stop it before it gets here.”
Elk bought the property to build a mosque on because there isn’t one in DeSoto County. Muslim families have to travel 30 to 40 minutes to Memphis in order to worship.
He claimed that he met with city officials to discuss his plans at the end of 2019 and showed them his plans for the mosque along with a proposed residential subdivision and cemetery. Elk later said he was shocked at the anti-Muslim comments he heard from residents at the August 31, 2020 planning commission meeting who were opposed to the mosque, and made multiple assurances that there would not be any noise issues because there would be no call to prayer over any loudspeakers.
The Planning Commission voted unanimously to deny the application, but provided no reasoning. Elk appealed the decision to the Board of Aldermen. Five aldermen voted to reject the appeal with only Adlerman LaShonda Johnson voting in favor. One former Alderman, Charlie Roberts, later had a change of heart after visiting a mosque in Memphis and apologized to Elk for the way he had been treated by city officials.
Attorneys for the ACLU said the consent decree is an important victory for religious freedom.
“It affirms the fundamental principle that the government may not base its decisions on bigotry against a particular faith,” Heather Weaver, senior staff attorney for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief said in a statement.
“A wrong has been rectified with this order,” added ACLU of Mississippi Legal Director Joshua Tom. “People of every faith should have a safe place to worship, including the Muslim community of DeSoto County.”
Maher Abuirshaid, co-founder of the House of Abraham, said he is pleased that the lawsuit has been resolved and that they will proceed with plans to build the mosque in Horn Lake.
“We look forward to having the opportunity to join the wonderful fabric of the Horn Lake religious community and are thankful to the court for facilitating this resolution that addressed everything we had hoped to achieve,” he said in a statement.
The federal district court will continue to have jurisdiction over the case for five years to ensure the consent decree is enforced.