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Kentucky Community Shows Support for Local Muslims' Right to Worship

Heather L. Weaver,
Senior Staff Attorney,
ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief
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November 12, 2010

At a hearing Tuesday, the Board of Zoning Adjustments in Mayfield, Kentucky, unanimously granted a permit to a local Muslim man seeking to operate a small prayer center. The decision itself was heartening, but our client should not have had to engage in a protracted fight simply to secure the same rights afforded to other religious groups in Mayfield.

On August 10, 2010, the board granted our client’s permit application. However, after several nearby property owners objected, the board revoked the permit at an August 24 meeting. That action was unlawful: It violated a local zoning ordinance and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal statute meant to protect against local zoning regulations that might unduly restrict religious individuals or groups seeking to use private property to peacefully practice their faith.

The tone of Tuesday’s hearing was a complete reversal from the mood of the August 24 meeting. At the August 24 meeting, the room was packed with opponents of the permit; some carried Bibles and wore T-shirts that announced, “I’m an American, I believe in the Christian Church.” Prompting audience applause, one public commenter warned that Islam is “more than a religion” because it purportedly seeks to advocate a political system. The audience erupted in cheers after the board’s vote, and according to local media reports, those who attended vowed to return to fight the proposed prayer space in the future, if necessary.

But after the board’s decision, it quickly became clear that those views were in the minority. Most media interviews with local residents indicated support for the Muslims’ right to worship, and at Tuesday’s meeting, nearly every public comment supported the permit application. One man, an Iraq war veteran who had grown up in Mayfield, spoke about his pride in his hometown and urged the board not to come to a decision that “paints the town in racism and intolerance.” Another resident, reportedly a former Mayfield City Council member, urged the board to approve the permit, explaining that Mayfield citizens “expect you not to be influenced not by emotion or by the political whims of the time. We expect you to decide this issue on the law.” And more than 40 residents and citizens of Mayfield and Graves County supported a petition, which was submitted to the zoning board, emphasizing the importance of religious freedom for people of all faiths.

Though the struggle for a permit certainly took its toll on Mayfield’s burgeoning Muslim population, it may have had positive consequences unintended by permit opponents. It revealed to local Muslims that most of their neighbors respect their right to religious freedom and welcome them into the community. In addition, as one Muslim worshipper commented after the hearing, it showed them “democracy in action” and reaffirmed that religious liberty is still one of our country’s most valued principles.

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