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New RLUIPA Lawsuit Filed in Michigan on Behalf of Islamic Academy

Last month, an Islamic school from Ann Arbor, Michigan, filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the Township’s denial of the school’s request for a zoning variance amounted to a violation of RLUIPA and the U.S. Constitution. In October 2011, the Township Board of Trustees unanimously rejected an application from the Michigan Islamic Academy (“MIA”) for a rezoning request that would allow MIA to build a new school in Pittsfield Township. MIA is currently located in Ann Arbor, but the lawsuit claims the school had outgrown its facilities and purchased approximately 27 acres of land in a residential area of the Township on which it planned to build a 360-student school. An MIA board member alleged that the Academy’s current facilities are seriously lacking; the library is inadequate, there is no gym or lunchroom, and MIA is forced to hold classes in trailers in order to alleviate the overcrowded classrooms.

In denying MIA’s variance request, Township officials cited traffic concerns as well as complaints from residences regarding the effect the construction would have on their property values. The officials previously stated their decision had nothing to do with the fact the school was an Islamic institution.

However, several Muslim civil rights organizations claim that the Township’s denial demonstrates a persistent anti-Islamic sentiment, and that the Township is simply hiding behind its zoning regulations in an attempt to block an Islamic school from opening in the community. MIA claims that it addressed all the Township’s concerns regarding traffic, noise, and light, but was still met with opposition from Township officials. This opposition, MIA argues, imposed a substantial burden on the school and thus amounted to religious discrimination. MIA also argues that it was treated on less than equal terms with other schools, and cites eight schools in the area that allegedly were permitted operate in residential areas.

Soon after the lawsuit was filed, it was reported that the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) had launched a formal investigation into the Township’s denial of MIA’s variance application. While a spokesperson confirmed the investigation, she made sure to clarify that the investigation in no way indicated a finding of discrimination. The religious land use attorneys at Dalton & Tomich, PLC have been called on to comment regarding this case and will continue to follow the developments in this case and the findings of the DOJ’s investigation and be sure to discuss them in a later post.

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