ACLU files suit against Horn Lake over rejection of mosque site plan

Katherine Burgess
Memphis Commercial Appeal
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The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the City of Horn Lake in federal court, alleging that the city and its board of aldermen discriminated against two Muslim men on the basis of religion in denying approval of a mosque site plan.

The complaint, which also targets Mayor Allen Latimer, alleges that the city violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and the First Amendment by denying zoning approval for a proposed mosque.

“A mosque is to Muslims what a church is to Christians or a synagogue is to Jewish people," said Joshua Tom, legal director at the ACLU of Mississippi. "The city of Horn Lake has 13 churches. DeSoto County has 132 churches. There are no mosques in Horn Lake or DeSoto County. Without a mosque, Muslims like Mr. Elkhayyat and Mr. Abuirshaid and their families cannot practice their religion as they would like and they cannot practice it fully.”

Concept art shows the front entry for Abraham House of God, a mosque proposed for Horn Lake.

The suit is being filed by the ACLU, the ACLU of Mississippi and New York City-based Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP.

The ACLU's clients, business partners Maher Abuirshaid and Riyadh Elkhayyat, who also goes by Ray Elk, are both Southaven residents.

In April, Horn Lake's board of aldermen voted 5-1 to uphold the city’s planning commission’s decision to deny approval of the site plan.

The denial was made even though the mosque site plan met or exceeded all requirements to be built and although the piece of property was zoned for a house of worship. 

More:Horn Lake rejects application for mosque; applicant may take city to court

American Civil Liberties Union client Riyadh Elkhayyat, who also goes by Ray Elk, address media in Horn Lake on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021.

Aldermen opposing the building cited insufficient water mains for fire sprinklers, the fear that the building would break the noise ordinance and that it would be a traffic hazard as reasons for opposing the application.

“The Board’s unsubstantiated reasons for denial of the site plan were pretextual," reads the lawsuit. "The Board’s decision was based on an anti-Muslim animus and discrimination.”

Latimer, the mayor, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Violations of the law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (known as RLUIPA), have resulted in lawsuits brought by the Department of Justice and sometimes settlements of millions of dollars.

The law states: “No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution,” unless the government can demonstrate that it has a “compelling governmental interest” in the regulation and there is no less-burdensome method of meeting that interest.

“Each of those four prongs were violated by the city of Horn Lake in denying the permit to build the mosque," said Jonathan Youngwood, an attorney with Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP. "What should have been an uncomplicated approval of the site plan for Abraham House of God foundered with historic anti-Muslim bias." 

In May, several experts on the law told The Commercial Appeal that Horn Lake's rejection of the mosque was likely a violation of that federal law. 

More:Horn Lake’s rejection of mosque likely violation of federal law

Riyadh Elkhayyat and Maher Abuirshaid are the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the city of Horn Lake after the city denied an application for a mosque the two men had hoped to build.

“Here, denying a permit to build a mosque because of explicit and thinly veiled anti-Muslim bias is a clear violation of RLUIPA," Tom said. "Also treating a mosque differently from the tens of other churches in Horn Lake and over 100 of other churches in DeSoto County is also a violation of RLUIPA, because it treats a mosque differently than churches.”

It also violates the First Amendment since "they clearly denied this permit because the permit is to build a mosque," Tom said.

It's important to point out some of the anti-Muslim statements made by aldermen when they denied the permit, Tom said.

In an interview with The Commercial Appeal in May, former alderman John Jones Jr. told The Commercial Appeal, “I don’t care what they say, their religion says they can lie or do anything to the Jews or gentiles because we’re not Muslims.”

And in a meeting, he said, "If you let them build it, they will come. I think we need to stop it before it gets here.”

According to the lawsuit, one resident wrote in a Facebook group in which an alderman was a member, “This is wrong on so many levels. They are supposed to assimilate to our country, not us to theirs.” Another resident responded, “they will never assimilate. Their religion is to take over and kill the infidel. That’s us.”

And, in a Board of Aldermen meeting, one speaker said, “they are not subject to our laws, they’re subject to their laws.”

Not having a mosque in the area means the plaintiffs and their families are not able to practice their religion fully, unable to teach their children about Islam, unable to attend Friday prayers and unable to fully participate in observances of Islamic holidays, Tom said.

“Particularly in Mississippi, where Islam is not as prevalent as in other parts of the country and certainly not as prevalent as Christianity, a mosque is the equivalent of a church for a Christian and equally important for the practice of Islam," Tom said. 

Elkhayyat, who has been a resident of DeSoto County for over 20 years, has raised his six children in the county and wants to build it for them.

“I think it’s a duty for us to try to establish that mosque because our kids need a place to have their prayers, practice their faith," he said. "I am disappointed at the rejection we got from the city and I just wish that this project could get approved so we could go on with building the mosque.”

Having to travel to Tennessee to worship makes it difficult to fully practice their faith, said Abuirshaid, who has lived in Mississippi for over 15 years and has raised his three children there. Sometimes they cannot attend Friday prayers and they are unable to fully practice Islamic holy days, including Ramadan. 

"A local mosque is important for my children’s education too, and sense of belonging. In addition to teaching them about their faith and how to read Arabic and Quran, having a mosque nearby is important to keeping children on the correct path and teaching them to be a better Muslim, better citizen and better people," Aburshaid said. 

Katherine Burgess covers county government and religion. She can be reached at [email protected], 901-529-2799 or followed on Twitter @kathsburgess.

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