Sadaf Syed for Al Jazeera America

Illinois mosque faces an increasingly common zoning problem

Congregation in Chicago suburb struggles to find permanent home, amid land use legal battle

DES PLAINES, Ill. — Sitting in his car with his prayer rug beside him, Imam Senad Agic took another call on his cellphone. This time it was a frantic father whose son was sick in the hospital.

Life on the road might seem the norm for a sales executive or a pizza delivery person, but not necessarily for a member of the clergy. And it’s not just Senad traveling between various mosques, community centers, banquet halls and college campuses, where space is rented or donated, to fulfill the needs of the Muslim community he serves in this part of the sprawling Chicago suburbs.

A zoning dispute with the city of Des Plaines has left the entire congregation of the American Islamic Center (AIC) a little nomadic and put the community at the center of the sort of thorny dispute that is popping up all over the U.S. — where a non-Christian religious community insists it is being discriminated against while local government officials argue that they are just following the rules.

The majority of AIC members are Bosnian-Americans who came to the United States during the 1990s under refugee status. Today, many are professionals who own their own trucking and restaurant businesses or work as engineers and IT professionals. They mostly live in suburban Chicago.

But Senad said the lack of a permanent mosque of their own is painful for some members of the congregation.

“They feel embarrassed. After 20 years in Chicago, they have to rent facilities to meet their religious, social and spiritual needs,” he said. “They’ve renewed their lives and regained what they lost in Bosnia. But not a mosque yet.”

Senad does have a “dream property” in mind. It sits on Des Plaines’ Birchwood Avenue and includes a pair of two-story concrete buildings totaling 28,000 square feet. It took more than two years to find after looking over numerous other possibilities, including churches, manufacturing facilities, office buildings and warehouses. In order for it to become a mosque, AIC needs to get the area — currently a manufacturing zone — rezoned to a mixed-density residential classification befitting a religious institution. But after it passed various hurdles, the City Council failed to approve the measure by a 5–3 vote last year. Alderman Dick Sayad, who voted against approval, asked AIC representatives why they no longer wished to attend their previous mosque in the far northern suburbs of the city.

“Why are you coming here?” Sayad asked.

For Senad, the question had an obvious answer. About a quarter of AIC members live in Des Plaines, and the new location would cut travel time for most remaining members by 20 to 25 minutes.

“The central location is perfect,” Senad said. “To this day, no official has offered alternative options or convincing reasons for refusing us.”

But now this local dispute is up to a federal judge.

AIC has sued the City of Des Plaines — which is already home to more than 40 churches, one synagogue and one other mosque — and charged that the city is in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal civil rights law affording heightened legal protection for the use of property for religious purposes.

Heather Weaver, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, explained how RLUIPA mandates that mosques, Islamic centers and other religious institutions must be treated on the same or equal terms as comparable groups.

“The law protects from anti-Muslim prejudice, requiring strict scrutiny and analysis. In the past five or six years we’ve seen a number of these zoning disputes, especially involving mosques and Islamic centers,” Weaver said.

City officials, however, deny they are doing anything unusual or singling out a mosque. Paul Friedman, legal counsel for the city of Des Plaines, said the municipality was vigorously contesting the lawsuit.

“We feel we are in compliance with the federal statute,” he said.

But the state of Illinois has recently seen its share of zoning disputes involving religious buildings. DuPage County was involved in two cases last year, including paying a $445,000 settlement to Irshad Learning Center of Naperville, an Iranian Muslim community that was refused a zoning permit. The county, after being taken to federal court, also reversed a decision that had previously denied the Islamic Center of Western Suburbs opening a prayer space.

Nor is it just Muslim groups who are affected. In May 2014, a Jewish educational institution in Evanston, the Joan Dachs Bais Yaakov Elementary School, filed an appeal with the Circuit Court of Cook County under RLUIPA after being denied the right to redevelop vacant land. 

City officials and politicians in Des Plaines have argued they are just following local property law in not wanting the mosque built in the potentially converted building. Opponents have pointed to the chance of conflicts with overflow street parking.

“If they [trucks] are not able to get in and out of our business, they will leave. Our customers will leave. We will leave. That’s all there is to it,” said Scott Luedtke, plant manager for neighboring company Pexco.

One Des Plaines resident, Hinan Patel of nearby Pine Street, is familiar with the truck traffic around the building.

“Sometimes I have to wait for the trucks. They can’t see behind them. I don’t think the mosque should be on that street,” Patel said.

But others want the mosque. Alderman Joanna Sojka voted in favor.

“My vote speaks for itself. I support allowing the community and will continue to voice my support for anyone who asks,” she said.

In the meantime, the AIC’s somewhat nomadic status in Des Plaines will continue as the congregation borrows space at the Turkish American Society of Chicago for family nights twice a month, where kids play basketball and the community socializes. 

“We’re praying the federal court rules in our favor,” said AIC’s Paula Sulejman. “We can’t wait to have a home of our own.”

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