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Youkhanna v. City of Sterling Heights

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

August 1, 2018

KAMAL ANWIYA YOUKHANNA, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
CITY OF STERLING HEIGHTS, et al., Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT[#69] AND DENYING PLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT [#67]

          GERSHWIN A. DRAIN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Presently before the Court are the parties' cross motions for Summary Judgment. These matters are fully briefed and a hearing was held on May 7, 2018. For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant the Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment and will deny the Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         The instant dispute stems from the American Islamic Community Center, Inc.'s (“AICC”) attempt to build a mosque in the City of Sterling Heights, which permits places of worship and religious community centers in residential zoned (R- 60) areas through special land use.

         In 2015, the AICC applied for a special land use with the City to build a mosque on Fifteen Mile Road between Ryan Road and Mound Road. After working with then City Planner Donald Mende for approximately one year, the AICC appeared at a public hearing before the City's Planning Commission on August 13, 2015, seeking approval of its application. At the meeting, Mende reported that the application met all of the objective standards set forth in the zoning code. He indicated that the mosque would cover approximately 11% of the property, well under the 30% limit on R-60 zoned property, the height of the mosque's dome and spires complied with the zoning code, and the proposed 130 parking spaces exceeded the required 109 spaces. Mende further reported that the location of the mosque on a major thoroughfare was also appropriate.

         Mende next discussed whether the discretionary standards of the zoning code had been met. This included consideration of the paint to be used, that no audio devices would be used outside of the building, allowance of future liquor sales at nearby businesses, and limiting use of the multi-purpose room to AICC members only. He further discussed that increased traffic was not a concern because “[t]he average traffic counts [sic] at this location is approximately 11, 000 vehicles per day, which is actually average for major roads” and that “accidents have actually been steadily decreased since 2011.” Mende recommended that the AICC's application be approved.

         The Commission thereafter took public comments. Audience members raised concerns about traffic, size, use of the building, and safety. During deliberations, Commissioner Jeffrey Norgrove, also a Plaintiff herein, indicated that he was thinking of asking for a “full impact study with socioeconomic numbers” and stated that “I'm not exactly comfortable with making this decision tonight after everything I've heard.” Commissioner Jerry Rowe suggested a postponement to allow the AICC to “review the scale of the building.” Commissioner Stephan Milltello challenged the postponement stating that “I would be against [postponing] . . . [I]f this was a church, a Catholic Church or anything else, we wouldn't be, we wouldn't [need a postponement].” The Commission then voted 6 to 1 to postpone the matter.

         On September 10, 2015, the AICC appeared again at another public hearing before the Commission, seeking approval of its Application based on revised plans submitted to the City following the August 13, 2015 meeting. Over 200 people attended this meeting and, before the meeting, many of them engaged in protests outside of City Hall against the building of the mosque. At the meeting, Mende reported that the AICC had agreed to reduce the height of the mosque's spires by approximately 13% and increase the size of the dome by 12%. At the meeting's conclusion, Plaintiff Norgrove made a motion to deny the AICC's application based on the following discretionary standards set forth in §25.02 of the zoning code: the location and height of the mosque interferes with and discourages the appropriate development and use of adjacent land and buildings, lack of size compatibility with established long term development patterns, a likely shortage of off-street parking when the principal and ancillary uses are combined, additional parking spaces are required, and the scale of the mosque is not harmonious with the neighboring areas. The Commission then voted to deny the application.

         The AICC disagreed with the Commission's decision, essentially claiming that the denial was pretext and was truly based upon religious discrimination. Thereafter, the AICC filed a lawsuit against the City alleging, among other things, multiple violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000c, et. seq., as well as violation of the AICC's First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion.

         The United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”) also investigated the denial of the application and filed a lawsuit alleging the Commission's decision violated the RLUIPA and discriminated against the AICC. The DOJ further alleged that Plaintiff Norgrove attended an anti-mosque protest on August 30, 2015 and improperly influenced the other Commissioners due to his alleged bias against Muslims. In addition, the DOJ asserted that Plaintiff Norgrove opposed the construction of a different mosque in 2011 and posted anti-Islamic statements on his social media stating: “Oh no the terrorists are gonna attack, according to the media this weekend. Come to the Detroit area. They don't [sic] bomb their revenue source.” The DOJ also claimed that Norgrove shared a picture of a pig with the statement “share this pig if your [sic] not celebrating Ramadan [sic].” Finally, the DOJ maintained that Norgrove contacted Commissioners between the first and second meetings and informed them that he would be making a motion to deny the application.

         The City's answer to the complaints denied any wrongdoing, maintaining that the decision by the Commission was based on legitimate land use concerns. The parties participated in facilitation with Magistrate Judge Anthony Patti. With the Magistrate Judge's assistance, the parties fashioned a potential resolution of the lawsuits taking into consideration the issues raised by the Commission, as well as balancing the AICC's right to free exercise of religion.

         The potential resolution was proposed to the City Council at its February 21, 2017 meeting. More than 240 people attended the meeting, which exceeded the capacity of Council Chambers so the City added seating in the vestibule located outside of the Chambers. The City employed a “one in, one out” procedure to allow audience members to rotate into the Chambers to provide their comments. Due to the size of the audience, Mayor Michael Taylor, a named Defendant in these proceedings, proposed that speaking time be limited to two minutes per person so that everyone present would have an opportunity to speak. The vestibule area outside of Chambers had windows through which audience members could watch the meeting and televisions on which the meeting was broadcast live.

         The meeting began with the City's Attorney, Ann McClorey McLaughlin, who explained the terms of the Consent Judgment and the concessions received. See Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. L, 2/21/17 Mtg. Video at 1:42:00-48:06). Specifically, she indicated that the Consent Judgment would approve a special land use to build the mosque in the City and that the AICC agreed to reduce the height of the mosque's dome and spires, to provide off-site parking and shuttling for events exceeding available on-site parking, and not to use any outdoor sound projection or call to prayer. Id. McLaughlin further explained that the Consent Judgment required that the dome be painted with non-reflective paint, that all religious activities be conducted indoors, and affirmed the City's ability to institute permit parking on surrounding residential streets and to enforce parking ordinances. Id. She noted that the City was not admitting liability and that by resolving the matter now, the City could control the situation rather than leaving it to a judge or jury to decide. Id.

         After McLaughlin concluded her comments, Defendant Taylor opened the floor for public comment, having previously provided the following explanation of the City's Rules:

We have 181 seats, I believe, in this Council Chamber; every seat is taken (save for maybe one or two) and we also have overflow of at least 25 to 30 or more in the vestibule. So, it is currently 9:07 p.m. . . we have other agenda items to get to on the agenda tonight aside from this . . . . Our Council Rules allow for us to reduce the speaker time limit and judging by the size of the crowd unless there is objection from Council, I recommend reducing the speaker time on this item only to two minutes . . . . Speakers will be required to stay on point. Your comments during this agenda item must be related to this agenda item. This agenda item is to consider settlements, consent order, and consent judgments in these two cases . . . . If you fail to abide by the Council's Rules, you will be called out of order . . . and you will be asked to go back to your seat. If you do not go back to your seat, we will recess and you will be removed from the auditorium. So please don't make us do that . . . . Outbursts from the audience can be grounds for being called out of order . . . . So again, let's just please be as respectful as we can of each person. We do not need any comments about anybody's religion, that is not the purpose of this meeting tonight and any comments regarding other religions or disagreements with religions will be called out of order. It's simply not relevant to what's going on tonight.

Id. at 1:37:49-41:02. Despite Defendant Taylor's ground rules, there were twenty-six outbursts by audience members, both individually and as a body, forcing multiple recesses. The outbursts included people speaking out of turn, shouting, applauding, and other disruptive behavior, including attacks on Islam and the AICC for being “terrorists” and wanting to “destroy the American Constitution.” Id. at 2:20:35-21:14, 2:32:54-33:43.

         With respect to the Plaintiffs herein, all of the Plaintiffs who were in attendance were permitted to speak uninterrupted and none of the Plaintiffs chose to utilize their full two-minute speaking time. Id. at 1:52:37-53:48, 1:53:54-55:27. 1:59:05-37, 2:03:11-41, 2:59:00-25. After every audience member who wished to speak was heard, a motion was made by Councilman Douglas Skrzniarz to approve the Consent Judgment. Id. at 3:04:09-54. During Council's deliberation, the audience began screaming at Councilman Skrzniarz, mid-sentence, forcing another recess. Id. at 3:04:56-08:13.

         When Defendant Taylor was in the process of calling this recess, Plaintiff Rrasi approached the dais and began speaking loudly at Defendant Taylor. Defendant Taylor has specifically testified that Plaintiff Rrasi “came close to the council diaz [sic] and was making gestures with her hands, making threatening comments, and was being disruptive . . . I was trying to do my best to maintain order in there, and in a split second I recall Debi coming up, making a threatening gesture, coming towards the council table, and I believe I asked that the police officer to escort her out.” See Taylor Dep. at 101:2-5; 102:10-15. After Defendant Taylor asked that she be escorted out of Council Chambers, ...


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