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US judge orders Mississippi city to approve mosque construction

Judge bans delay of mosque construction months after lawsuit accused city of denying permits due to anti-Muslim bias
In DeSoto County, Muslim families currently have to cross state lines into neighbouring Tennessee in order to attend their nearest house of worship.
In DeSoto County, Muslim families currently have to cross state lines into neighbouring Tennessee in order to attend their nearest house of worship (AFP/File photo)

A US federal judge has ordered a Mississippi city to approve plans for a mosque to be built in the area, months after a lawsuit was filed claiming the plans were denied due to anti-Muslim prejudice.

The judge issued an order on Monday, which would pave the way for the mosque's construction, ban the delays of any permits, and force the government of Horn Lake, Mississippi to pay the mosque builders $25,000 for incurred expenses, as well as attorney fees for the plaintiffs.

In November, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against Horn Lake on behalf of Riyadh Elkhayyat and Maher Abuirshaid, co-founders of the Abraham House of God, who had submitted a site plan for the mosque that "met or exceeded" all requirements, according to staff for the city's planning commission, cited by the ACLU.

"We are heartened and relieved that we are able to move ahead with our plans for a mosque in Horn Lake, which will provide a critical local house of worship for my family and other Muslims in the community to gather and practice our faith freely and without discrimination," Elkhayyat said in a statement.

Heather Weaver, senior staff attorney for the ACLU's religious freedom programme, said: "The consent decree entered by the court today is an important victory for religious freedom. It affirms the fundamental principle that the government may not base its decisions on bigotry against a particular faith."

The two co-founders have been seeking to build what would be the first mosque in DeSoto County, where they say Muslim families currently have to cross state lines into neighbouring Tennessee in order to attend their nearest house of worship.

Despite there being 13 churches in the city of Horn Lake, there are no mosques in the area where the two plaintiffs said there is a "thriving" Muslim community of 15 to 20 families.

However, their plans were initially rejected by the commission and its Board of Aldermen, the city's governing body.

Anti-Muslim sentiment

According to the complaint, the board said it rejected the plan on the basis that the mosque would create traffic and violate noise ordinances. But the ACLU rejected this argument, pointing out that no evidence was provided to make these claims, and that the submitted plans did not include speakers or noise amplifiers.

The complaint said that board members showed the real reason for the application's rejection: anti-Muslim bias.

According to the lawsuit, one board member told local media: "I don't care what they say, their religion says they can lie or do anything to the Jews or gentiles because we’re not Muslims."

"If you let them build it, they will come. So I think we need to stop it before it gets here," they said.