The Justice Department filed a lawsuit on Monday against Culpeper County, Virginia, alleging that local officials violated federal law by denying an Islamic center a sewage permit, despite approving similar permits 26 times since 1992.
On April 5, the Culpeper County Board of Supervisors voted 4-3 against granting a pump-and-haul sewage permit to the Islamic Center of Culpeper (ICC), which has never had an official house of worship. Such a permit is required for properties that are not attached to an existing sewer system.
Another supervisor at the meeting, which opened with a Christian prayer, said that a "majority of the calls and emails" she received were because of "the religion" and not for "pump and haul or environmental reasons."
Many supervisors at the meeting insisted that their decision to deny the request was not related to religion. But it is unclear why a vote for a sewer permit resulted in such introspection, a denial, and a desire to revisit the rules around pump and haul permits. The DOJ believes it is because of discrimination.
A total of 26 pump-and-haul permits have been granted by Culpeper County since 1992 for commercial and religious use — nine of which were granted to churches. The county had not denied a single pump-and-haul permit until the ICC's request.
Muslims in the area currently pray in a "small house on the site of a used car dealership," according to the DOJ complaint, which was filed in the Western District of Virginia. The closest mosque, according to the complaint, is around 45 minutes by car.
"The house has a single room, and it is too small to host events that attract additional worshippers, such as the celebrations of the holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid-ul-Adha," the complaint reads, referring to two of the most important Muslim holidays.
The complaint alleges that the county imposed "a substantial burden on the religious exercise of the ICC," discriminated "against the ICC and its members on the basis of religion," and treated the ICC "differently from other applicants on the basis of religion or religious denomination" — all of would be violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RULIPA).
RULIPA was passed by Congress in 2000 and is designed to “protect individuals, houses of worship, and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning and landmarking laws,” according to the Justice Department.
“Religious liberty is a fundamental right in our country and this case seeks to uphold that right,” US Attorney John P. Fishwick Jr. of the Western District of Virginia said in a statement. “We will continue to work with the experienced lawyers with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice to protect the residents of the Western District of Virginia from unlawful discrimination.”
In March, Culpeper County sought to have the case dismissed, arguing, in part, that the denial of the permit did not stop the possibility of the ICC building a mosque in the county. The judge, in a memorandum opinion, disagreed. He wrote that "the facts alleged leave the impression that the County’s permit denial was based on religious hostility, and that the denial substantially burdened the ICC’s ability to exercise its religion."
A settlement conference is reportedly scheduled for April 6.
BuzzFeed News reached out to all seven supervisors of Culpeper County, as well as the ICC, for comment, but did not immediately receive a response.
In September, a town in Michigan paid a mosque $1.7 million in order to settle a four-year discrimination lawsuit dispute with town officials after alleging they unlawfully denied a permit that would allow the group to build an Islamic Academy on land it owns.