The ideological politics of the Obama years have yet to be challenged.
Justice Department activism on behalf of mosques and Muslims has been ramping up for years. Under President Obama, ideological activists inside the Department leveraged federal power to help mosques fight local zoning boards. Under President Trump, there are disturbing signs that the activist lawyers pushing these polices are yet to be reined in.
A federal judge recently dismissed a Trump Justice Department discrimination case, United States v. County of Culpeper, originally brought by the Obama Justice Department. In settlement proceedings, the mosque accepted expense money and a “pump and haul” permit to conduct sewage disposal. But this was not enough for Justice Department lawyers and they ramped up investigations of Virginia county officials and local citizens.
The Trump Justice Department lawyers sought to shake down Christian pastors and regular citizens by serving subpoenas on them. The subpoenas forced them to give depositions to DOJ lawyers under oath about their views on Islam. These summons allowed just over a week to produce “any documents that mention, concern, record, or otherwise relate to Islam.”
The lawyers on the subpoena documents are listed as Onjil McEachin and Sameena Shina Majeed.
The Civil Rights Division was so intent upon predicting that Culpeper County government would stray from the DOJ way in the future that it was also suing, in spite of attorney client protections, to open the county attorney’s files.
After the efforts to force Christian pastors to testify received wide attention, United States District Court Judge Norman Moon, a Clinton appointee, dismissed the case. But the fact that the Justice Department continued to pursue the testimony of citizens and pastors about their views on Islam reveals a dangerous problem that persists inside the Deep State even with Attorney General Jeff Sessions heading the DOJ.
This case was not a glitch in DOJ’s enforcement, it was a feature.
Why was the Justice Department so obsessed that it refused to drop the lawsuit, even after the mosque had settled its case with the county? DOJ lawyers answered that they had a higher duty than just ensuring compliance. The ideological lawyers on the case were on a mission to press “broader claims.”
The radical lawyers working on the case sought to take any politically incorrect views on Islam and attach them to the county government. This departs wildly from the law. Worse, this approach allows activist DOJ lawyers to ferret out ideas with which they disagree using the power of the government to inflict hardship on third parties.
The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has been meddling in mosque land use cases for years to the great disadvantage of local planning commissions.
The DOJ pushed a Muslim-favored agenda during the Obama years as it engaged in an affirmative action like program. Outreach to Muslim groups, with no vetting for Muslim Brotherhood ties, gave Muslim activists a sense of entitlement.
Justice’s Civil Rights Division lawyers, under the guidance of the Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination Eric Treene, have long worked to link community complaints about Muslims and mosque applications to municipal officials. Government lawyers borrowed from racial and civil rights legal theories to argue that a negative response to a mosque application must be based in discrimination. Indeed, the Justice Department has characterized even relevant inquiries about the size of the facility, traffic, and parking as veiled bigotry.
When DOJ tips the scales in favor of mosque applications, the underlying zoning concerns become secondary. The settlement is the goal and negotiation is the means to reach the goal; not the expected regulatory proceeding that invites community input. Zoning authorities that would limit parking, traffic, hours of operation, scope of operations, and that would assess suitability of the use to the zone are pushed to the sidelines. The final agreement is presented to the community as a “done deal.”
In an escalation of Justice Department overreach, the “deal” done with a Basking Ridge, New Jersey township included a broad city code revision to allow religious use with streamlined standards virtually anywhere in the town. In Sterling Heights, Michigan, the settlement agreement only required parking spaces for a small percentage of a 28,000 square foot building. Dire traffic conditions were not recognized even though the road on which the mosque would be sited is already rated as one of the most dangerous in the city.
The pages of settlement instructions devoted to discrimination remedies and compliance demands illustrate the high priority assigned by DOJ to its social justice agenda. The attention devoted to local resident concerns and important zoning prerogatives pales in comparison.
The Justice Department mandates a laundry list of “we don’t discriminate” signs, internet disclosures, disclaimers, and staff legal training.
The Justice Department has even required that municipalities collect data on area residents that complain about the activities or the congregants at the mosque.
It is not surprising then that settlements have also dictated, in a clear violation of the First Amendment, what words local residents may not use when discussing the settlement terms at community meetings.
The federal religious land use statute, RLUIPA, requires that religious assemblies are treated equally with secular applicants and that religious institutions are not discriminated against. This is all meant to give religious land uses equal footing. But the statute explicitly says that local officials are not required to “adopt a federally prescribed zoning scheme.” The Justice Department needs to read the memo.
The full array of DOJ coercion tactics tells any community that the Justice Department Civil Rights Division will stop at nothing to impose its own social justice agenda. Every example tells citizens and town halls alike that mosque approvals will be done the DOJ’s way and citizen speakers will mind the federally dictated speech code.
Karen Lugo, author of Mosques in America: A Guide to Accountable Permit Hearings and Continuing Citizen Oversight, is an attorney.
Wikimedia Commons (Charles Keck sculpture)