Final Planning Board Hearing for Portland Mosque

Affiliate: ACLU of Maine
July 27, 2010 12:00 am

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Portland – Tonight, the City of Portland Planning Board will consider whether to grant approval to the Portland Masjid and Islamic Center for the use of a former television repair shop on Washington Avenue as a small community Mosque. The hearing will take place against a National backdrop of growing anti-Muslim rhetoric, which has revolved around proposals for Islamic community centers in lower Manhattan and Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The Portland Masjid group, which is represented by the MCLU, expects its proposal to be approved.

“We are a nation of diverse cultures, ethnicities, and religions, but we are united under the protections of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion to all,” said MCLU Legal Director Zachary Heiden.

Heiden, who represents the group along with MCLU Cooperating Counsel David Lourie, filed a lawsuit against the City of Portland last August, charging that the city’s zoning laws violated the group’s freedom of religion. In February, the Portland City Council approved amendments to the land-use code that make it possible for small religious groups to establish places of religious assembly. The group then applied for approval under the new law, which has more flexible standards with regard to lot size and parking.

Clergy and religious freedom advocates from across the region support approval.

“Freedom of religion must mean freedom for every religion,” said Eric C. Smith of the Maine Council of Churches. “We are a better community when we welcome our neighbors and treat them as we expect to be treated.”

“We should all be grateful for the diversity of people and religions in our city—it is part of what makes Portland such a special place,” said Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld of Portland’s Congregation Shaarey Tphiloh. “As a member of a minority religion, I congratulate the Portland Masjid and Islamic Center for standing up for all of our rights, and as a Rabbi I appreciate their efforts to make the world a more holy place.”

Many of those involved in these efforts also voiced support for Rabbi Moshe Wilansky in 2008, in his dispute with the City of Portland over the use of his home as a place of worship. The City ultimately decided not to pursue an enforcement action against Rabbi Wilansky, but it did not amend its laws until the current controversy. Once the Portland Masjid and Islamic Center receive final approval for the use of their property for worship, the MCLU expects that the group and the city will negotiate an end to the Federal litigation, which has been on hold since the beginning of the application process.

On July 18, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin voiced opposition to the construction of an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan, a view shared by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich; former New York Police Chief Bernard Kerik; and Elizabeth Cheney, daughter of the former Vice President. In Tennessee, Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (who is currently running for Governor) spoke out in opposition to the construction of a Muslim community center in Murfreesboro, suggesting a novel First Amendment interpretation that holds that Islam is not a religion.

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