A Bosnian Muslim congregation filed a federal lawsuit Monday against Des Plaines and five aldermen, alleging they violated its religious freedom when they denied permission to convert a vacant office building into a community center and Muslim house of worship.
The American Islamic Center claims in the suit that aldermen violated its constitutional rights by refusing to rezone an industrial park to accommodate a mosque.
"We are not happy that we have to file this lawsuit," said Imam Senad Agic. "We are hoping the City Council of Des Plaines would understand our religious needs."
But aldermen say allowing any house of worship in an industrial park would endanger pedestrians and impede neighboring manufacturers.
"I don't care if they're Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, whatever. It's not zoned for that particular area," said Ald. Mark Walsten, who was named in the suit because he voted against an amendment to accommodate the mosque. "Whenever there are children involved in an industrial area, I will not have that on my conscience."
Members of the American Islamic Center, who have rented space in a Rolling Meadows mosque since March 2011, had hoped to purchase the vacant building, formerly occupied by an insurance company. Many of the center's 160 members fled Bosnia in the 1990s to escape war and genocide.
In fact, Bosnian immigrants opened the first mosque in Chicago almost a century ago, Agic said, and Illinois has the nation's largest Bosnian-born population.
After exploring about a dozen properties, members found former commercial office space that had been vacant for more than two years at 1645 Birchwood Ave. in a manufacturing district. The insurance company agreed to sell the building to the community, contingent on rezoning approval.
Leaders presented Des Plaines officials with detailed proposals regarding the planned use of the property, including prayer services, interfaith activities and Saturday religious education classes. They also presented officials with traffic studies that suggested Birchwood Avenue has adequate capacity to accommodate the center's activities.
The Des Plaines Plan Commission unanimously recommended a zoning amendment to accommodate the center. But in July, the City Council voted down the proposed amendment.
The lawsuit alleges that Des Plaines violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act by imposing a substantial burden on the center's religious freedom and by discriminating against the religious institution based on its Muslim affiliation.
Scott Luedke, plant manager of Pexco, a plastics company across the street from the proposed mosque, said his opposition to the mosque has nothing to do with the group's tenets. But he said trucks are hauling away goods on a deadline most Fridays, when the mosque would draw the highest volume of traffic for weekly congregational prayers.
"It's unfortunate because I think they're trying to use things to their advantage that really have no grounds," Luedke said.
Lawyers for the American Islamic Center, including former Cook County Commissioner Tony Peraica, compared the case to one in DuPage County, in which a judge ruled earlier this year that the county had to allow an Islamic worship center to open in a single-family home just outside Naperville.
Luke Goodrich, a lawyer for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty who represented an embattled mosque in Murfreesboro, Tenn., in 2010, said minority groups tend to face more difficulties in zoning disputes. He pointed to a Department of Justice analysis of federal cases 10 years after the passage of the federal religious land-use act that showed 64 percent of complaints involved religious or racial minorities.
"It's not always overt hostility toward minorities," he said. "It could just be indifference."
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