Ten years ago today, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal civil rights statute that gives houses of worship heightened protection in zoning disputes. The ACLU actively supported passage of the statute in 2000 and has since used the law numerous times in defense of churches, synagogues, and mosques around the country.
Since RLUIPA’s enactment, much progress has been made in eradicating religious discrimination in the zoning context, and many communities have been even more welcoming of new houses of worship, including those built by followers of minority faiths. But there have also been discouraging signs. Unfortunately, the recent uproar over a proposed Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan is hardly an isolated incident. As a new interactive map launched today by the ACLU shows, we still have more work to do, especially with regard to protecting the religious freedom rights of Muslims.
The ACLU’s new interactive map details attacks on Islamic centers and mosques nationwide over the past five years. In some cases, existing and proposed mosque sites have been targeted for vandalism and other criminal acts. Many other anti-mosque campaigns focus on blocking or denying necessary zoning permits for the construction of new facilities or the expansion of existing ones. Still others seek to intimidate Muslims into simply withdrawing their plans or leaving the area by making them feel unwelcome and vilified.
The Constitution guarantees the right of private citizens to protest, and the ACLU would vigorously defend that right if infringed by the government. But making Muslims — or any other religious group — feel unwelcome in local communities conflicts with our Founders' vision of religious liberty and tolerance. Unfortunately, we continue to hear about such incidents across the country and we will continue to add them to the map and address concerns as they arise.
Just today, we intervened in a dispute in a zoning permit controversy. In Mayfield, Ky., after initially approving a Muslim applicant’s request to hold prayers in a rented storefront, the local zoning board reversed course, voiding its prior vote and denying the permit even though the city’s staff and legal counsel recommended approval. The ACLU submitted a request today on behalf of the permit applicant that the board reconsider and reverse its decision.
In looking at the map, which currently reflects more than 40 different cases of anti-mosque activity over the past five years, it’s disheartening to know that a country so firmly rooted in religious liberty continues to treat some minority faiths with such contempt. Hopefully, the map’s little red dots, which pinpoint each incident by city and state, will serve as a reminder that anti-Muslim sentiment can spread all too easily. We must continue to remain vigilant and work to ensure religious liberty — even now, a decade after legislation was passed to help protect everyone’s right to worship.
Please let us know of any anti-mosque activities in your community by sending an email to religion[at]dcaclu.org.