MCLU and City Reach Interim Agreement on Religious Freedom

Affiliate: ACLU of Maine
August 17, 2009 12:00 am

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Today, the Maine Civil Liberties Union Foundation and the City of Portland reached an interim agreement in a religious land-use dispute brought on behalf of a group of Afghani Muslims, which avoids the need for a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO). The group, who wish to use a former television repair shop on Washington Avenue to host prayer services, religious study, and other observances of their faith, filed suit in federal court last week against the City of Portland. Today, lawyers for the City and the group, the Portland Masjid and Islamic Center, agreed that prayer and religious use of the property could proceed during the pendency of the lawsuit.

“This is a step in the right direction,” said MCLU Legal Director Zachary Heiden, who is counsel to the plaintiffs. “We look forward to reaching a permanent solution to this problem soon.”

“With the Muslim holy month of Ramadan approaching, this interim agreement provides a place for this small community to gather and pray,” said MCLU Cooperating Attorney David Lourie, who is himself a former Corporation Counsel to the City of Portland.

The current dispute, like the one in 2008 involving Chabad Rabbi Moshe Wilansky, has provoked an outpouring of support from faith leaders for the protection of religion and religious minorities.

“Portland is a complex and cosmopolitan city that’s increasingly diverse. We need to move beyond tolerance and really celebrate the racial, cultural and religious differences. Old assumptions about how and where people worship will have to be re-examined, too. The freedom to gather for worship is fundamental and communities need to amend any policies that infringe on that right,” said Reverend John McCall of the First Congregational Church of South Portland.

“Portland is a beautiful diverse city,” said Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld of Congregation Shaarey Tphiloh. “All religious groups, including religious minorities, should have places to gather and worship freely.”

“There is no religious group that has not been persecuted somewhere in the world at some time in history,” said Reverend Jill Job Saxby, Executive Director, Maine Council of Churches. “As people of faith, we know that freedom to worship, each in our own way, is fundamental both to the integrity of our civil democratic society and to the flourishing of the spiritual values of compassion, peace and justice that we pray will underpin our life together. Civil authority and the law should always err on the side of more freedom, to ensure that any religious group does not suffer undue burdens on its freedom to pray, worship, study and serve in its own way.”

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