for The Chicago Tribune
February 17, 2011
The members of the Muslim Educational and Cultural Center of America want to move their mosque to unincorporated Willowbrook because they have outgrown their space in an office park in the village. Seems clear-cut, yet DuPage County leaders are resisting.
In January, the county's Zoning Board of Appeals rejected plans for the MECCA mosque. Earlier this month, the County Board declined to vote on the proposal, kicking it back to planning officials for more study.
This rocky journey through county government for nearly a year might be chalked up to DuPage's rigorous standards and, perhaps, a not-in-my-backyard reaction from nearby residents. The kind of objection that might arise to a Target.
Except for this. Some County Board members have floated a zoning amendment that would prohibit any new place of assembly in unincorporated residential areas. Zoning Appeals Board member Barry Ketter said he worries about a "saturation of religious institutions" in the area.
The leaders of the mosque have gone out of their way not to ascribe anti-Muslim motives to all this. We won't try to read the hearts and minds of the opponents either. But let's note that, around the country, mosques have often faced greater obstacles than other houses of faith. The Justice Department says 14 percent of its investigations related to religious land use involve Muslims (including several Illinois cases) even though Muslims make up less than 1 percent of the U.S. population.
Now here's the heartening part of the story in DuPage. The proposal for restrictions on new religious institutions has banded Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders in opposition. They argue correctly that such a broad policy would be a barrier to the free exercise of religion. Although the ban also would apply to other places such as social clubs, the impact would fall on religious institutions, especially Muslims. "We are the new kid on the block," Bassam Osman, a supporter of the Willowbrook mosque, told Zoning Board members. "The impact on us will be tremendous, not like the impact on … older churches and synagogues that are already built and finished."
The federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, passed in 2000, requires that local governments not place a "substantial burden" on religious expression through such actions as onerous zoning. If DuPage persists, the county is going to wind up in court and will most likely lose.
County officials have raised some valid concerns about flooding, parking and other community impact issues with the MECCA project. The county has put reasonable restrictions on the mosque's capacity and hours of use and rejected a variance for a 79-foot-high minaret, which was twice as high as zoning allows.
In turn, leaders of the mosque have been reasonable in their response to those concerns. This week, they reduced the proposed size of the building. They will use a permeable material for the parking lot and build underground stormwater basins to mitigate flooding.
There may be other basic footprint issues to navigate. But let's be clear: The DuPage County Board should approve this project. And it should junk the proposed broad restrictions on places of worship.
DuPage County remains an attractive place to live and work and worship because it has skillfully managed the benefits and challenges of rapid growth. But the county is in danger of sending a terrible signal, that some good people just are not welcome.
Board members, these are your neighbors. They want to practice their faith, just as thousands of other citizens of DuPage do.
Approve the mosque.