Federal judge rules mosque suit against Norwalk may proceed

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A model of the mosque proposed by the Al Madany Islamic Center for 127 Fillow St. in Norwalk.

NORWALK, Conn. – A federal judge ruled Tuesday against Norwalk’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the Al Madany Islamic Center in its quest to build a mosque in West Norwalk.

U.S. District Court Judge Michael P. Shea dismissed one of nine counts in the motion, denied seven and reserved comment on one, according to mosque spokesman Farhan Memon.

“The decision vindicates our case for the mosque,” Memon said. “The judge found the mosque adequately pleaded its case that the city violated the religious land use act. It means we asserted enough facts that it is plausible” that Norwalk is in violation of the act by denying the application to build on Fillow Street in West Norwalk.

Memon said about two dozen lawyers for both sides were in the courtroom, including Marci Hamilton, a professor at the Cardozo Law School at Yeshiva University in New York and nationally renowned Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act expert, who is representing the city.

“This was just a procedural debate about whether they should have appealed to the Connecticut court,” Hamilton said. “Now the court ruled that they have alleged enough to go forward. They bear the burden of proving their case.”

Hamilton said no one should read too much into the decision.

“The judge looked out into the courtroom before things got started and said this is not a predictor of who will win or lose this case,” she said.

Memon said the city now has an opportunity to sit down with the representatives of the mosque and discuss “how to build the mosque on Fillow Street, or continue to fight it and risk incurring a larger debt” for legal expenses.

The city is paying outside legal experts, including Hamilton, to defend against the suit. Should the Al Madany Islamic Center prevail, the city could be on the hook for millions of dollars in legal expenses for the mosque.

“This can be laid squarely at the feet of Richard Moccia,” Memon said of the former mayor. “Moccia rejected a reasonable settlement because he listened to members of his own party who were ideologically in opposition to the mosque. He decided to roll the dice with Norwalk taxpayer dollars, rather than settle and pay $100,000” and allow the mosque to be built.

Hamilton said the next step will be for the city to prepare its case and ask for a summary judgment by mid-June.

“The ball is back in the city’s court,” Memon said. “Norwalk’s reputation and financial resources are on the line.”

Said Hamilton, “The city is confident in its position.”


24 responses to “Federal judge rules mosque suit against Norwalk may proceed”

  1. M Allen

    The proposed facility hasn’t changed. If they want the mosque built, change the plan, acquire additional adjacent land or change the location. But ramming an inappropriately-sized facility into this specific piece of property by way of lawsuit, isn’t the way to do it. My vote is to use every last city dollar to fight this form of extortion. And that is what it is: extortion.

  2. piberman

    Before you spend every last city dollar Mr. Allen you might think where the dollars are coming from. Taxpayers. Presumably the Common Council, not the Mayor’s office, determines how much to open the public purse here. And its possible that should the City prevail it might well secure legal fees.

  3. M Allen

    Mr. Berman, I’m well aware of where the city’s dollars come from and which entities control the purse. I’m simply not interested in the city being held hostage by a lawsuit of this nature. It would be easy to acquiesce to their demands and take the path of least resistance. It is what most of the weak-willed learn to do in order to avoid conflict. But sometimes we need to have some backbone and principles, especially when it comes to defending against an extortionist suit such as this.

  4. Suzanne

    M Allen, I agree with you. What I don’t understand is this: if it has been made clear that the size and scope of this development is not only not welcomed but inappropriate, why not seek an alternative site? It’s not like there isn’t other places either a new mosque or adapting an existing church (something done quite readily in the history of the co-existence of Muslims/Christians/Jews) isn’t possible. It seems like their is a “cut off your nose to spite your face” principle of some kind being followed by Al Madany. I know such speculation is not helpful but I am wondering how much reasoning rather than legal finagling has gone into this effort.

  5. M Allen

    According to the article in today’s Hour, Memon said Richard A. Moccia, mayor at the time the commission rejected the plan, decided “last year to reject a reasonable settlement because … he wanted to placate extremist members of his party and win votes.”
    Moccia didn’t reject a “reasonable” settlement to win votes and placate extremists. He rejected an unreasonable settlement that was basically – pay Al Madany $100,000 for their troubles AND let them build the site as originally planned. Gun-barrel diplomacy, always a sure-fire way of achieving compromise and good will.
    But there is this, which could be a positive opening: “We are once again at a juncture where we are amenable to discussing with the city what options are available to achieving a conclusion to this matter that allows a mosque to be built on Fillow Street,” Memon said.
    The city was always willing to discuss alternatives. But they didn’t seek an alternative. If this statement is one where they would be willing to find a resolution outside of $100k AND the original plan, then I’m sure a discussion could and should take place. But if the plan is unchanged, then I guess it will come to court. So what is it Mr. Memon? Is there room for modifications? You say “a conclusion to this matter that allows a mosque to be built…” Would you be willing to modify the plan to only include the mosque? Or is it still all or none?

  6. Cluetrain Manifesto

    The judge was appointed by Obama. Norwalk is screwed.

  7. Oldtimer

    The City’s position, as expressed by the Zoning board, is the proposal has design problems relative to off-site parking and some traffic issues, all of which are resolvable with some changes. There may have been some people who were opposed to a mosque under any circumstance for reasons of their own, but the City position was pretty clear, and within the law. A church or house of worship can be built in any zone with a special permit that must look at issues like off-street parking and traffic control.
    Zoning turned their proposal down and they went to court claiming religious discrimination. If their lawsuit is not settled before it goes to trial, there is a lot at risk and we could end up required to issue a permit and pay for the construction plus whatever additional damages the court decides. Any lawyer will recommend settling for as little as can be negotiated, and issuing a suitably modified permit. The court may define “suitably modified” so the City cannot cause further unreasonable delay. If the mosque group bought an adjoining piece of property, changing their proposal to make it acceptable would be much simpler.

  8. Suzanne

    Additional land would resolve the shoe-horning a la BJ’s component to this development but it will not resolve the dangerous intersection at the base of the existing lot. Traffic planning and street augmentation is a must plus the additional land if this mosque is to be safe for its members as well as the surrounding neighborhood.

  9. TG

    This is just speculation, but it seems like Al Madany proposed the biggest possible blueprint, knowing that there would be pushback, and when that happened, they could simply cry religious discrimination, in the hopes that no one would further hinder their plans (and asking for $100,000? For what?) It is a my way or the highway approach that can only hinder them in existing peacefully with their neighbors. Rather than showing the peaceful face of Islam, it actually will only reinforce people’s negative stereotypes of the religion- that it exists with only respect to itself and its members. Unless I’m mistaken, one of the zoning problems, as well as the issue that seems to be concerning area residents, is the gymnasium. A reasonable compromise would simply have been to take that off the table and simply build a house of worship (with the area where the gym would have been being usedfor parking?) When was the last any other religious institution broke ground in any residential neighborhood to build something so big? The neighbors will have to have patience enough just get through the construction process. That patience will be tried should they find parking on the streets and traffic to be an issue as well. I am certain there are simply people who are opposed based on personal prejudice towards Muslims, but it seems to me the majority – as well as the city- would simply like see some real compromise, so that everyone can be good neighbors.

  10. M Allen

    @TG – I don’t think anyone’s view of Islam will be reinforced by the fact that someone decided to use the legal system in order to get what they want, no matter how out of place. The unfortunate fact is that we have built a legal system that can be gamed for such purposes. It shouldn’t be surprising that those who understand how to play the game will attempt to use the rules to their advantage. I don’t view this any differently than any other development plan. If the developers and their lawyers can game it, they will. If BJ’s thought they could have used the legal system to bypass the Zoning Commission, they would have. What is funny about all this is that the public opinion and reasoning behind the denial of Al Madany was what was eventually used against BJ’s: too big and too disruptive in each respective location.

  11. TG

    That is the reasonable opinion, MAllen, but I don’t think we can be naive to think that there is not a percentage of people out there who are opposed to the mosque because they have a discomfort with Islam. But, now that Me. Memon has said this is all due to ideological opposition, he’s pulled the religious discrimination card. That just tends to make people bristle you know? It’s one thing to game the system like BJ’s. it’s a money thing and everyone knows it. When people bring up the race or here, religion, thing, it has the possibility of creating a certain animosity (glad Irishgirl defined that for me- haha) and definitely divisiveness. Like now we have an us against them kind of thing instead of a simple question of zoning.

  12. M Allen

    Agreed. I mean, I know there was likely a minority of the populace that was against it because of what it was. Those folks always exist to some degree or another. But that wasn’t why it was denied. Unfortunately, we either go through the process to prove that wasn’t the reason or we just give in and scrap zoning altogether when it comes to religious organizations. And that we can’t do. The law in this case is bad. It may have had good intentions in order to combat actual discrimination. But it has really been allowed to abuse the purpose. It has become a real hindrance to zoning across the country.

  13. TG

    Yes, that’s exactly right. And that’s where it feels like extortion, as you said- either you let us build. And build whatever we want ( or even worse, let us build AND give us a $100,000), or you get the rep as religion intolerant.

  14. Cluetrain Manifesto

    For those who missed it, the judge was appointed by Obama in December of 2012. All of this is on purpose my friends.
    TG hits the nail on the head. The building is ridiculously oversized on purpose to make a point and create case law that can be used nationwide.

  15. Cluetrain Manifesto

    Oh. I forgot to say, Norwalk is screwed.

  16. Suzanne

    I understand the likelihood that there are those who have a bias against Islam but I would propose something else: what if what was planned was a Christian mega-church? I don’t think the opposition would be any less. This group is going to have to prove discrimination based on what? The other religious organizations in the area have developments on appropriate-sized land for not only the activities (school and day care primarily) but the participation (attending services). Any bias against anyone would first have to start with comparative examples to other religious faiths, none of which apply. This is a zoning issue, Obama judge or no, and if it does in fact comply with all of the regulations on the Town’s books, this just points to the fact that the regulations need to be rewritten, updated and made applicable to 21st Century issues, not the limited knowledge from the 1970’s of what this town was to become.

  17. LongTimeDem

    From what I can tell, Cluetrain Manifesto’s “All of this is on purpose/Norwalk is screwed” thesis (which CTM has now repeated for emphasis) is based on the following assumptions:
    1. That Barack Obama nominated Michael Shea to be a U.S. District Judge (with a lifetime appointment) in order to advance some sort of crypto-Muslim secret agenda. (Or perhaps instead to promote an even more devious agenda of seeking overly dense development in residential areas.)
    2. That the U.S. District Court’s entire system for assigning cases, administered by judges appointed by a variety of Presidents, was cynically manipulated to make sure that President Obama’s hand-picked choice would hear the case.
    3. That Judge Shea, after an accomplished career in private practice and less than a year after his confirmation to the Federal bench, would chuck the law out of the window in order to make sure that the mosque proponents win their case, regardless of the facts and the law.
    Just as it is fun to yell at the umpire at a ball game when the call is against your team, it easy and I am sure satisfying to try to explain the outcome of any case by impugning the integrity of the judge. But Norwalk’s elected and appointed representatives will, over the next year or so, have to decide whether the City will continue to litigate or will settle, and if so, on what terms. Whether you are for or against the mosque, for or against the City’s litigation strategy, most everyone can agree that this will be a serious decision, with significant consequences.
    The idea that “Norwalk is screwed” because the judge on this case was appointed by President Obama is the sort of facile claptrap that cheapens the very real debate here and makes it that much more difficult for our public officials to make the right choice as to how to proceed with this case, whatever that choice may be.

  18. Oldtimer

    The City has already hired the best lawyers they could get to get this suit settled in the best possible way for the City. We need to let them do their job and see where that takes us. They are not likely to advise tilting against windmills just to prove a point. Nobody on the City side is claiming the mosque proposal is impossible, just not right as proposed. Some relatively ,minor changes will get them a permit. It sounds as if that process, getting the changes and issuing a permit, could happen right away, before the lawsuit goes back to court. The lawsuit might be withdrawn, if that happens. What better proof that religious discrimination was never the real issue ?

  19. @TG
    “…you get the rep as religion intolerant.”
    Well, that rep could go along with the national rep that Norwalk got when we had enough of people abusing our education system and finally arrested one of them.
    Norwalk is being used by minority groups to gain national attention…

    (this post had been edited to comy with our policy)

  20. Don’t Panic

    It is time the city took a real look at our zoning regs (as Mr. Mushak has advised) and the ways that redevelopment and zoning are working together (or not). The fact that we have had three battles Royale in the last few years over zoning decisions, (Lowe’s, BJ’s and mosque) with one winding up in federal court, should tell us that the system is broken. In the meantime, lack of enforcement of basic ordinances is leading to an appearance of decay and neglect.
    We can do better.

  21. Cluetrain Manifesto

    @LongTimeDem. If it walks and talks like a duck.
    All one has to do is look at the lot to figure out that this is ridiculous.
    Mark my words. Memon v. Norwalk will be used to screw over communities across the country. This is what they’ve been waiting for since they tried their stint down at ground zero. Nothing from the Obama admin is coincidence. Or have you been living under a rock the last 5 years?

  22. Cluetrain Manifesto

    Shea in his confirmation also supported the Kelo v. New London decision where people were evicted from homes so that Pfizer could build a fancy little campus. The lot sits vacant and overgrown with weeds almost 10 years later and Pfizer has actually moved just about every job out of Connecticut as a reward. So he supports confiscation of personal property, but in this case he’s allowed a specious claim to go through. Sorry, I’ll continue to be cynical until one of Obama’s minions does something in the interest of the country rather than this continuous drive to tear everything down to its lowest common denominator.

  23. M Allen

    The judge not tossing this isn’t surprising. The recent ruling had nothing to do with the merits of the case. And while it’s easy to point to this particular judge, or who appointed him, the bigger issues is the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) itself. And there we can’t blame Obama.
    Introduced in the Senate as S.2869 by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-UT) on July 13, 2000

    Passed the Senate on July 27, 2000 (unanimous consent)

    Passed the House of Representatives on July 27, 2000 (unanimous consent) – that means NOBODY objected

    Signed into law by President Bill Clinton on September 22, 2000
    Through RLUIPA, Congress has expanded religious accommodations to a point where it appears to restrict municipalities’ zoning power. Arguably, RLUIPA gives religious landowners a special right to challenge land use laws which their secular neighbors do not have. Even if a zoning law is void of discrimination, the court reviewing a challenge will apply strict scrutiny to the city’s regulation.
    So we’ll see.

  24. M Allen

    Related to my previous post is also this note – reviewing our zoning for this particular case probably makes no difference. Attempting to lump this in with Lowes/BJ’s doesn’t make sense. The zoning issues could make perfect sense and still be viewed as burdensome on a religious organization. However, and I’m no lawyer, but I think we have a fair shot at proving that the reasons for denial were not burdensome. Building a mosque is one thing. Building all that intended to go along with it, in making it a cultural center, is where the entire issue comes in here. So again, we’ll see. RLUIPA is a huge issue across the country and reviews of zoning regs, unless they are already significantly restrictive (and I don’t think anyone would say that Norwalk’s are) wouldn’t have changed anything in this case. The law just wants these things viewed differently for religious orgs.

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