By Tresa Baldas
In a contentious battle involving religious rights, the U.S. Justice Department has filed a lawsuit against Pittsfield Township, alleging it unlawfully denied a religious group the right to build an Islamic school on a vacant plot of land.
In the lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court, the federal government accused the charter township of breaking the law in denying zoning approval to the Michigan Islamic Academy, which wants to build a school on undeveloped land that sits next to a residential subdivision known as Silverleaf. The property, which sits just south of Ann Arbor, had been approved in the mid-1990s as a housing project and did not include schools as a permitted use, so the academy requested the property be rezoned to allow the school.
"Pittsfield Township representatives ... assured them that as long as MIA followed the proper procedures, rezoning the property to allow a school would not be a problem," the lawsuit claimed.
But in August 2011, after a heated public meeting that lasted until 1:30 a.m., the township's Planning Commission denied MIA's rezoning request. According to court documents, the township cited these reasons: The project did not involve a "small-scale school" as required by the township's Master Plan; traffic would be disruptive; and noise and light from outdoor activities would be disruptive.
The Michigan Islamic Academy disputed all those claims and sought legal relief. The DOJ's Civil Rights Division intervened and filed a lawsuit, noting that Pittsfield has approved other schools in residential areas that have required zoning approval, including the Washtenaw Christian Academy and the Ypsilanti Free Methodist Church.
"The law prohibits the government from imposing land use regulations that substantially burden religious exercise unless there is a compelling government interest and uses the least restrictive means of doing so," said U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade. "We filed this lawsuit to protect the right of all Americans to practice their religion and receive the religious instruction and education of their choice."
Pittsfield Township officials referred all questions to their township attorney, Jim Fink. He could not be reached for comment.
The township is accused of violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a 2000 federal law.
MIA, which is currently located in Ann Arbor, sought to build in Pittsfield Township because its current facility is not big enough for a cafeteria, computer or science labs, a gym, locker rooms, auditorium, library, or adequate administrative office space. The Pittsfield location was especially desirable, the suit states, because it is only eight miles from the academy's current location, and roughly 60 percent of its student body lives in or near Pittsfield Township.
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