A Mosque in Maine

If all goes well, the Portland Masjid and Islamic Center will receive approval tonight for the establishment of a small mosque in Maine’s largest, and most ethnically diverse, city. It is the culmination of a five-year effort, which has included numerous meetings, one federal lawsuit, and an entire re-writing of the city’s zoning rules for places of worship. Though it is a small event for all but the members of the community (and their lawyers), it is worth celebrating, especially in light of the recent controversy surrounding mosque constructions across the country.

This is a momentous occasion for the group, which is made up of approximately 15 Maine families, who are primarily of Afghan descent. They pooled their money four years ago and purchased a small property that had been a television repair shop on a busy street on the outskirts of the city. They opened up the floor downstairs, put down carpet and prayer rugs, and decorated the walls with passages from the Koran. The Portland Zoning Code, though, said that while a 1/3- acre lot was a fine size for a television repair shop, it was too small a space for prayer. The city told the group they would have to find somewhere else to pray.

Hopefully, this irony is not lost on anyone. Most of the families involved fled Afghanistan in the early 1980s, after the Soviet Union invaded, It wasn’t the military coup, or the murder and exile of government officials, or the dropping of mines designed to look like children’s toys, or the depopulation of the rural zones that drove our clients from Afghanistan: it was the prohibition on the practice of religion. That is still what they talk to me about, when they recall their reason for coming to this country.

This country was founded on the principle of freedom of religion for everyone. For almost 400 years, this has been a haven for religious minorities and dissenters, and the guarantee of free exercise of religion is embodied in our Constitution.

But hostility to foreigners and minorities is, unfortunately, a tradition with nearly as old a provenance. For as long as people have been coming to this country seeking freedom from religious discrimination, there have been people already here who would deny them that right. Sometimes that denial takes a relatively banal form: the lot size requirements for places of religious assembly in Portland, Maine were not the product of an anti-immigrant campaign, even though they had the effect of keeping new religions out and making people who practice those religions feel unwelcome. Portland has since realized the effect its law was having, and it amended its laws to make it possible for new religious groups to locate here.

But elsewhere, the campaign to make Muslims feel unwelcome and unwanted has been both overt and nefarious. In New York City, efforts to build a mosque in lower Manhattan have been opposed by people who seem to believe that all of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims helped plan and carry out the attacks on September 11, 2001. In Tennessee, candidates running for governor have competed to outdo one another in opposition to a Muslim community centerin Murfreesboro, with one questioning whether Islam is truly a religion.

It is unfortunate that racism and xenophobia can be manipulated to win political support, and hopefully, in time, political leaders will repudiate (er, refudiate?) such views. Until then, the ACLU remains committed to fighting for everyone’s right to freely exercise their religion—from prisoners, students, and small community groups, to those in the majority.

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Anonymous

The mosque at Ground Zero is stirring up such an appalling controversy. I was happy to hear Bloomberg speak up though when Sarah Palin gave her two cents on the issue (obviously not in favor of the project, calling it an "unnecessary provocation") http://www.newslook.com/videos/231374-bloomberg-rejects-palin-calls-to-s...

Maggie

The entire re-writing of zoning rules? Isn't that normally something the ACLU is against?

Anonymous

What would you do if this happened to your life? - Joseph Barber's MySpace Blog http://goo.gl/EjxN

Dennis

@Maggie "The entire re-writing of zoning rules? Isn't that normally something the ACLU is against?"

Not when the the previous zoning laws were prohibiting equal liberty for all Americans, whether intentional or not.

Anonymous

The plan to build a huge Mosque so close to Ground Zero is just bad taste.

Build it uptown.

Anonymous

What is the ACLU's position on the Lower Manhattan mosque?

Beth N

The zoning law was not prohibiting equal liberty for all Americans, as it simply required that a place of worship have at least 1 acre of land. This applied to all places of worship, regardless of the religion. Whether or not Afghanistan Muslim refugees have suffered hardships beyond that of other religions in America should not give them leeway to bend and break laws that have their purpose. You and the Maine Civil Liberties Union have paved the way for a group of people to have special privileges based on their religion....sounds a little bit like the opposite of what you promote, which is equality. Changing a city's entire zoning laws so that one group can illegally misuse a property, including paving a lot on my neighbor's property with no permits, is promoting inequality amongst religious groups and human beings in general.

Did you ever consider that 1/3 of an acre is too small to house any consistently occurring gathering of people? Do you know that every Friday, 25-50 cars park on Washington Avenue and Fall Brook Street surrounding the Mosque, causing safety issues at the intersection and property damage of lawns and plants? This is because 1/3 of an acre is not enough to house the number of people expected at a religious gathering. Do you know that the owners consistently approach the surrounding neighbors to buy our properties so that they may expand? And have attempted to use the tactic of stating "we are rebuilding a bigger Mosque so your property value will only go down?" Does this sound anything to you like usual bigwig corporate bullying to you?

To me and to many neighbors in the surrounding area, this has absolutely nothing to do with Islamic discrimination. It has to do with the fact that this area of the neighborhood simply cannot accommodate any large business or institution smack dab in the middle of it. I don't care if it's the Assemblage of the World's Cutest Puppies or the Home of the Tastiest Calorie-Free Sundae, we simply cannot accommodate that number of people. It's is disruptive and destructive to the community.

In your desire to "protect" religious freedom, you have afforded a group of people a privilege that no other group has been afforded. In fact, you have created inequality in the neighborhood. What is your hope across America? That simply because a group of people have suffered hardships and practice an under-served religion, they deserve the right to disobey state and city laws? There is nothing that says anyone cannot follow zoning laws and purchase an acre of land in the same area and create the world's greatest, most awesome and highest-attended Mosque. The acreage requirements and zoning laws for any place of gathering are there to protect the citizens who live in the area so that they may enjoy their home peacefully and with minimal disturbance from population and noise. You have tread all over that in your and the Mosque's desire to overstep the boundaries that everyone else has to follow. You fought for a special allowance for a certain group of people and this is discrimination and inequality at its worst, because it's all under the guise of doing good.

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