White House

U.S. suit over Va. county’s mosque rejection raises question: Will Trump team do same?

The Justice Department’s announcement late Monday that it is suing for discrimination a Virginia county that’s blocking the construction of a mosque illustrates the difficulties of building an Islamic center in an anti-Muslim political climate.

The stalled mosque project in Culpeper County, 70 miles southeast of Washington, is part of a nationwide rash of similar cases in which Muslim groups seeking permits for houses of worship find technical obstacles from local officials or residents who are hostile toward Islam, according to advocacy groups, news reports and federal case files.

The Justice Department suit alleges that the board of supervisors discriminated against the Islamic Center of Culpeper by denying a sewage permit for pumping and hauling waste from the premises, effectively blocking the construction of a mosque for the group. Without a house of worship, 20 or so local Muslims have gathered in a train station and in other borrowed spaces for their Friday congregational prayers.

“Religious liberty is a fundamental right in our country and this case seeks to uphold that right,” U.S. Attorney John P. Fishwick Jr., of the Western District of Virginia, said in a statement on the Culpeper County case.

Whether the administration of Donald Trump will be as attentive to alleged acts of anti-Muslim bias is a major concern of Muslim groups. Earlier on the same day the Culpeper suit was filed, Attorney General Loretta Lynch visited an Islamic center in Reston, Va., and voiced concern about seeing “Muslim Americans targeted and demonized simply because of their faith.”

“To impose a blanket stereotype on all members of any faith because of the actions of those who pervert that faith is to go backwards in our thinking and our discourse, and to repudiate the founding ideals of this country,” Lynch said.

Lynch noted several recent anti-Muslim cases in which the Justice Department intervened: a Connecticut man who fired a high-powered rifle at a mosque, a Florida man who threatened to firebomb a mosque and shoot congregants, a Missouri man involved in an arson attack on a mosque, a North Carolina man who ripped the headscarf off a Muslim woman, and a plot to detonate bombs at an apartment complex in Garden City, Kan.

In contrast, Trump has often used debunked information to smear Muslims as terrorists or extremist sympathizers, and his designated attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, has argued passionately in favor of a Muslim ban and has been linked by the advocacy group Southern Poverty Law Center to several figures and groups that are hostile toward Islam. Sessions also has criticized the use of public money to distribute books educating about Islam to libraries across the nation.

Mohamed Nawabe, an applicant on behalf of the Culpeper Islamic Center, had no comment on the lawsuit, according to a woman who answered the office phone at his car dealership.

County Administrator John Egerston responded to a request for comment with a statement and a rebuttal letter addressed to the Justice Department. In the letter, the county warned that the department was “proceeding rashly and precipitously,” insisting that the Muslims’ application for permission to build a sewage system was treated just like any other and stressing that board members had fully cooperated with an FBI inquiry into the matter.

“The issue regarding a permit for the permanent pump and haul of excrement is a health issue – not a religious one,” the county said in the statement. “There presently is no bar to the Islamic Center of Culpeper using its property for religious gathering.”

The Culpeper Star Exponent, a local paper which has reported extensively on the controversy, found that since 1995, the county board has received 19 requests for pump-and-haul applications and that 18 of those were approved – including for five churches. The Justice Department cited similar figures. The county disputes those findings in its letter to the Justice Department.

But there’s an indisputable anti-Muslim subtext to the case. The Star Exponent quoted County Chairwoman Alexa Fritz, who voted in the minority against the permit denial, as describing intense pressure from constituents. Fritz, the paper wrote, shared a photo of a sign on a house in her district that said “No Islamic Center” and included Fritz’s name and address as well as the time of the board meeting.

At the meeting, the paper reported, “a roomful of Culpeper County citizens cheered” at the motion to deny the Muslims’ permit request, prompting Fritz to bang the gavel and order, “There will be no clapping or hooting and hollering!” The board voted 4-3 to deny the permit.

Nawabe, the applicant, told the Star Exponent at the time that “it looks like discrimination to me.”

This isn’t the only recent example of Culpeper officials being accused of fearmongering about Muslims. Sheriff Scott Jenkins made local headlines in September by announcing a training program for residents “to detail the threat from the global Islamic movement and the jihadi threat to this particular area/state.”

The advocacy group Council on American-Islamic Relations, known as CAIR, has documented 40 impeded mosque projects nationwide from 2009 to 2015. A recent example involves Muslim groups suing the city of Yonkers, N.Y., in September, alleging that it had blocked the construction of a mosque by improperly designating the property as a landmark.

Around the same time, residents of Newton County in Georgia, outraged by a proposed mosque and cemetery, launched a campaign called “Stop the Mosque” and spread the hashtag #NoJihadInDixie. The county board responded by imposing a moratorium on building any house of worship, but dropped it in October under pressure from civil rights groups.

Hannah Allam: 202-383-6186, @HannahAllam