A Georgia city council has rejected a zoning request for a mosque, despite previously approving a similar request for a Christian church.
The Kennesaw City Council voted 4-1 to deny the Suffa Dawat congregation a permit for a storefront worship space. Council members cited concerns about traffic, but congregants argued that the space would have simply acted as a temporary home during the construction of a permanent mosque.
“I believe it’s a retail space. It’s as plain and simple as that,” Councilwoman Debra Williams told the Marietta Daily Journal. Williams did not explain how a storefront mosque would have differed from the storefront church she voted to approve in July. The Redeemed Christian Fellowship Church, a Pentecostal congregation, now occupies space in a strip mall at a busy local intersection.Councilwoman Cris Eaton-Welsh, the only vote in favor of the mosque, said she was saddened by the decision. “The amount of anger that has come out of this was not something I ever thought Kennesaw was all about,” she reflected.
That anger roared outside City Hall during the vote, as local residents protested the potential mosque and likely influenced the council’s final decision. “We have heard so many bad things about the Islamic religion, about Shariah law and you see it on TV, and we’re scared of you. I’ll tell you I’m scared to death of you,” Ann Pratt said at a public hearing on the matter.“[Muslims] are moving into all these small towns, and they’re camping out,” said Karen Untz, another protester. “There’s no such thing as a temporary mosque. They claim the space and they teach Shariah law.”
“I think that the terrorist organizations fund Islam and that they’re not peaceful and even the moderates eventually become violent,” added Tammy Pacheco.But NPR’s Atlanta affiliate reports those sentiments weren’t universal. Arden Stone, who identified herself as a Christian, said of the vote, “Wherever you live, you want it to reflect what the ideals of what our country are all about and [that] didn’t happen tonight. Sorry about that.”
Stone is correct: The Kennesaw City Council’s vote did not reflect the principles of American democracy, and neither did the rhetoric employed by protesters. If the council had denied Redeemed Christian Fellowship Church’s permit as well, they would perhaps be able to argue that they have applied a consistent zoning standard. By approving a church and rejecting a mosque, they have invited a legitimate civil rights complaint from Suffa Dawat.And this is not an isolated phenomenon. Muslim communities are frequently singled out for extra scrutiny by local officials. A mosque in Murfreesboro, Tenn., battled for years to build, and then occupy its worship space in peace. And as the International Business Times notes, another Georgia city attempted to deny a similar permit for a mosque, forcing the Department of Justice to take legal action.
American Muslims cannot be denied the rights that all religions receive under the First Amendment simply because there are Muslims extremists active abroad. The vast majority of U.S. Muslims are not sympathetic with groups like ISIS, and they eschew violence.
Indeed, there is significant statistical evidence that the majority of our Muslim neighbors reject fundamentalism and violent extremism. The New York Times reports that in 2011, the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security’s Charles Kurzman deemed extremism from the Muslim American community “a minuscule threat to public safety.” (How many U.S. Muslims, for example, have assassinated abortion doctors? None.)If Kennesaw’s protesters, and its city council, could produce evidence that Islam is really a front for a dangerous political movement bent on the destruction of the U.S. government, perhaps then they would have been justified in treating the Suffa Dawat congregation differently from the congregation of Redeemer Christian Fellowship Church. They have not produced that evidence and they can’t because there is none.
Muslims deserve First Amendment protection and that includes the right to worship freely. To deny them that right is to employ a definition of religious liberty that is so selective it can hardly be called liberty at all.
It is ultimately of little consequence whether the officials and residents of Kennesaw like Islam. The law is not based upon their personal preferences; it is based upon the government’s compelling interest to ensure the equitable protection of religious liberty. That principle applies to Christians, non-theists, and others as well as Muslims, and it is dangerously undermined when one religious group is singled out for unfair treatment based on inflammatory and inaccurate rhetoric.The leadership of Suffa Dawat congregation has indicated that they may sue the city of Kennesaw. If they do, they are likely to win.