By Timothy Mclaughlin
(Reuters) - The U.S. government sued an eastern Michigan city on Thursday, saying it discriminated against Muslims when it rejected an Islamic group's plan to build a mosque there.
The lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Michigan in Detroit said city officials in Sterling Heights rejected the American Islamic Community Center's (AICC) proposal to build a mosque, after members of the public and officials objected based on religious bias.
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"The City Planning Commission's decision on the AICC's application was procedurally and substantively inconsistent with its prior decisions regarding other places of worship, inconsistent with the master plan and the zoning ordinance, and based on anti-Muslim bias," the U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit said.
Earlier this week, the Justice Department sued Culpeper County in Virginia on similar grounds, saying it discriminated against a Muslim congregation by halting the group's plans to build a small mosque on its land.
Sterling Heights, which is located about 23 miles north (37 km) of Detroit, was "surprised and disappointed" by the lawsuit, the city said in a statement.
The decision to deny the AICC proposal for the mosque was based on issues including insufficient parking and the height and size of the building, "not emotional feelings tied to religious beliefs either for or against the applicant," the statement said.
The AICC, which is a non-profit organization serving the Muslim community of the Detroit area, according to its website, entered into an agreement to buy five plots of land totaling 4.3 acres in May 2014.
The AICC applied for "Special Approval Land Use" in July 2015 to build a mosque on the property, but the application was met by fierce resistance from city residents and officials, according to the lawsuit.
At an Aug. 13, 2015, hearing, some 50 residents spoke against the mosque, with some making anti-Mulism statements including a "plea to 'Remember 9/11,' statements that Christians would not be allowed to build a church in Iraq and statements that property values would drop if a mosque were built in the neighborhood," according to the lawsuit.
Mayor Michael Taylor and Planning Commissioner Jeffrey Norgrove both attended protests against the mosque, according to the lawsuit.
Norgrove made anti-Muslim statements on social media and shared anti-Muslim images. Taylor openly opposed the mosque, the lawsuit said.
Bridget Doyle, a spokeswoman for Sterling Heights, declined to comment further. The statement from the city did not address specific allegations, but said that the city has a "solid reputation for inclusiveness and tolerance."
The city said it has numerous places of worship for people of different faiths, including two mosques. The lawsuit alleges that the city has no mosque for Shia Muslims.
(Reporting by Timothy Mclaughlin; Editing by Alan Crosby)