Des Plaines, Illinois: Islamic group sues over rejection of mosque plan

Another federal court battle is brewing over a northwest suburb’s refusal this summer to let a 160-member Islamic group open a mosque in a vacant building in an industrial area.

The lawsuit filed Monday against Des Plaines and five of its aldermen is the latest to take on a “knee-jerk reaction to something Islamic or Muslim,” said Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Chicago.

His group helped win a $445,000 settlement from DuPage County in a similar case earlier this year. Now, it’s backing the case brought by the American Islamic Center and its attorney, Tony Peraica. “We believe this was done for discriminatory reasons,” Peraica said.

Des Plaines officials either declined to comment Monday or failed to return calls from the Sun-Times.

Nearly all of the American Islamic Center’s members are Bosnian refugees from the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, according to its lawsuit. It said it entered a contract in February to buy an empty office building on 1.8 acres of land at 1645 Birchwood Ave., for religious and educational activities. Those activities included prayer services on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays, and meetings for youth and women’s groups, according to the lawsuit.

Three traffic studies were done in June, the lawsuit said, all of which found Birchwood Avenue carries a low volume of traffic and could handle the new mosque. Des Plaines’ plan commission also recommended unanimously a zoning change in June that would let the group move forward with its plans, according to the lawsuit. But the Des Plaines City Council voted 5-3 against the change on July 15.

The majority of the public comment that night was favorable toward the mosque, according to city council minutes found online. Nevertheless, aldermen James Brookman, Michael Charewicz, Patricia Haugeberg, Dick Sayad and Mark Walsten all voted no. Those aldermen also voted for a resolution again denying the zoning change Aug. 5. All five are named in the lawsuit.

Now, the American Islamic Center says the current owner of the Birchwood property has terminated the contract and plans to turn the parcel into a parking lot.

“I can’t tell you enough how much they are disappointed,” Imam Senad Agic said of his Islamic group’s members. “How much they are upset and how much they feel humiliated by this stubborn decision of the City Council of Des Plaines.”

DuPage County announced in June it had reached a $445,000 settlement with the Irshad Learning Center, a group that sought a permit for an Islamic center just east of Naperville in the western suburbs. The DuPage County Board voted in 2010 to deny that permit after neighbors complained it would hurt property values and increase traffic. But the group sued and U.S. Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer ruled in March the permit was improperly denied.

Kevin Vodak, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Chicago, represented the Irshad Learning Center in that case, and he’s co-counsel for the American Islamic Center in its case against Des Plaines.

Rehab said both cases fit a pattern seen across the country. “When it comes to mosques, there always seems to be this first reaction to deny,” Rehab said.

Chicago Sun-Times, 16 September 2013