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Michigan city to allow mosque, settle lawsuits alleging bias

By David Ingram

(Reuters) - The Sterling Heights City Council in eastern Michigan has approved a stalled proposal to build a mosque, a necessary step to settle discrimination lawsuits from Muslim residents and the U.S. Department of Justice.

The council's unanimous vote late on Tuesday followed a raucous meeting where opponents were especially vocal. Mayor Mike Taylor said on Wednesday that one mosque opponent accused council members of working with "terrorists."

Mosque opponents in Michigan and elsewhere had sought help from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and President Donald Trump, who during last year's campaign tapped into fears about Islamic State militants and called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States. Religious liberty lawyers had feared Trump might reverse Obama administration positions protecting the rights of Muslim worshipers.

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But the Justice Department on Wednesday released a statement commending the approval of the mosque.

"Federal law protects the right of faith communities to build places of worship without discrimination or unreasonable burdens on their religious exercise," said acting Assistant Attorney General Tom Wheeler, a Trump appointee overseeing the Civil Rights Division.

Under former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Justice Department lawyers sued several cities and towns that denied applications to build mosques, saying officials discriminated against Muslims.

The American Islamic Community Center, a Michigan nonprofit, applied in 2015 to build the third mosque in Sterling Heights, a city of some 132,000 people about 23 miles north (37 km) of Detroit.

The following month, some 50 people spoke against the plan at a hearing, with at least one resident telling city officials to "Remember 9/11," according the lawsuit the Justice Department later filed in December 2016.

Papers would likely be filed in Michigan federal court as soon as Wednesday to settle both the Justice Department lawsuit and a separate one filed last year by the community center, said Daniel Dalton, a lawyer for the center.

"The law did what it was supposed to do, which was to protect all religious entities with equal force," Dalton said in a phone interview.

The 20,000-square-foot mosque is expected to be built largely as proposed, but with a lower height and a plan to accommodate neighbors' concerns about parking.

Sterling Heights has gotten a "black eye" from the fight, but the Muslim community's persistence shows that it wants to be part of the city, the mayor said.

"They're part of the fabric of our community, and they have rights as Americans, as human beings, to worship in the city they live in," Taylor said in a phone interview.

The Justice Department has active lawsuits favoring proposals to build mosques in other states including Illinois, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

(Reporting by David Ingram in New York; Editing by Daniel Wallis and David Gregorio)