Norwalk supports mosque after lawsuit, fed inquiry
NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — When Norwalk received a proposal to build the city’s first mosque, it was rejected by officials who said the structure was too big for the largely residential area and would create too much traffic.
The applicants filed a federal lawsuit alleging religious discrimination and the U.S. Justice Department, which has been intervening in mosque projects around the country, launched an inquiry into the handling of the proposal.
Now, the city is moving to settle the lawsuit and support a version of the closely watched project. Norwalk officials say religion was never part of their considerations.
‘‘It was not based on any religious bias,’’ Mayor Richard Moccia said. ‘‘I can’t recall any zoning officer or any city official ever commenting that it happened to be a mosque and that’s the reason they were opposing it.’’
Moccia said the Justice Department wrote about two months ago, seeking information such as minutes of a zoning hearing on the project. He said the city responded and has not heard back from federal officials.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.
The Al Madany Islamic Center of Norwalk sued in June after the Zoning Commission rejected the $3.5 million project. On Nov. 29, the Zoning Commission voted to approve the mosque, subject to an agreement on the terms and conditions of a final settlement.
‘‘We are absolutely glad to see this,’’ said Mongi Dhaouadi, executive director of the Connecticut chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. ‘‘We’re going to let the process play itself out and hopefully we'll celebrate at the end as a whole community in Norwalk.’’
Among the opponents, the neighboring Stonegate Condominium Association had traffic and parking concerns and thought the project was too big for the property, said Marc Grenier, attorney for the association.
‘‘It was a huge building put on this small piece of property,’’ Grenier said. ‘‘This had nothing to do with religion.’’
The proposal called for a prayer hall and a multi-purpose auxiliary building, both 13,500 square feet. The site proposed for the mosque is surrounded by homes, condominium developments, schools and places of worship and a large hotel, the center said.
The center serves more than 100 Muslim families who meet to worship in private homes or rented rooms at a local Christian church because there is no mosque in Norwalk, according to the lawsuit.
The nearest mosques are in neighboring Stamford, Bridgeport and Waterbury. The proposal in Norwalk brought together Muslim immigrants from many countries and its rejection sparked concerns around the region, Dhaouadi said.
‘‘It resonated with a lot of Muslims,’’ Dhaouadi said.
The center contends in the lawsuit that its application a year ago satisfied zoning regulations. It says the decision amounted to unequal treatment compared to other places of worship nearby and came amid ‘‘the significant presence of strong anti-Muslim prejudice within a local community that organized a fierce opposition to the center’s application.’’
In response to an online news article about the proposal, public comments included statements such as ‘‘just what the USA needs, another house where they teach to kill those that disagree with their ideology’’ and ‘‘let ‘em build it. Then we burn it,’’ according to the lawsuit.
The number of American mosques has increased dramatically in the last decade, according to a study released earlier this year by Ihsan Bagby, a professor at the University of Kentucky. Researchers conducting the national count found 2,106 Islamic centers, compared to 1,209 in 2000 and 962 in 1994.
While Muslims comprise about 1 percent of the American population, 14 percent of the religious land use investigations by the Justice Department’s civil rights division in the past decade involved mosques or Muslim schools, according to a report last year.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the division has opened 28 matters involving construction of Muslim religious institutions.
‘‘Of those, 18 have been opened since May 2010, suggesting that anti-Muslim bias in zoning is on the rise,’’ the report stated.
Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, blamed the spike in cases on controversy stemming from a proposed mosque near the site of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in New York. He said an opponent of that project wrote a manual on how to stop mosques.
An Islamic cultural center opened last year at the site in New York.