(RNS) — A federal court has ruled in favor of efforts to build a mosque in Horn Lake, Mississippi. The effort to build the Abraham House of God, as the project is known, was blocked by the city in November. The Abraham House of God would be the first mosque in DeSoto County, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ruling — from Judge Michael P. Mills and announced on Jan. 3 — came in the form of a consent decree, meaning the city of Horn Lake agreed to the provisions of the ruling and must forgo any appeal. In at least one instance, a municipal official who opposed the mosque admitted the plan was initially blocked “because they’re Muslims.”
Mills found the denial of approval for the building of the mosque amounted to a violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and the First Amendment’s free exercise clause. Horn Lake officials agreed to approve it by Feb. 8 under the terms of the ruling and to negate their previous denial of the project.
“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,” Riyadh Elkhayyat, a co-founder of the Abraham House of God, told local media after the ruling.
The city of Horn Lake has also agreed to pay $25,000 to developer MR Property for associated costs of the litigation and other legal fees. The founders of the mosque were represented by Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP, as well as the ACLU’s Mississippi affiliate. The original permit for the construction of the mosque was denied despite being in an area zoned for places of worship.
“There are approximately 15 to 20 Muslim families, many with young children, in DeSoto County,” said Heather L. Weaver, an ACLU attorney. “Beyond that, there are additional Muslim families across other regions of northern Mississippi, but it’s unclear how many.” The town of 27,000 is about a mile south of Memphis, Tennessee, which has several Islamic centers. Mississippi itself is home to a number of Islamic institutions, notably the International Museum of Muslim Cultures in Jackson, which is often described as the oldest museum of Muslim history in America.
“This case should serve as a warning to local zoning officials across the country that they cannot let bigotry against a particular faith dictate their decisions,” said Weaver. “The anti-Muslim prejudice we saw in Horn Lake is all too common, and we won’t hesitate to challenge official bias of this nature wherever and whenever it may arise.”