Justice Department Settles Claims Against City of Meriden, Connecticut, Involving Denial of Mosque | OPA

The Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Connecticut today announced an agreement with the City of Meriden, Connecticut to resolve allegations that the city violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) by denying the application of the Omar Islamic Center to establish a mosque in March 2019, and by maintaining a zoning code that treats religious assemblies and institutions on less than equal terms with nonreligious assemblies and institutions in nine zoning districts.

“The United States of America is, and must always be, a nation that protects the religious freedom of all people,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division. “For more than four centuries, religious people from all over the world have found refuge here. Our Constitution protects the right of all people in this free nation to exercise of religion. But that right will mean little if people cannot gather together in a place of their choosing and practice their faith. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act marked its 20th anniversary last month, and it ensures that people of all faiths can establish houses of worship. The Justice Department will continue to enforce this important law against any government that violates the right of faith communities to build gathering places for worship.”

“We have alleged that the Meriden Planning Commission’s denial of the Omar Islamic Center’s application to establish a mosque in Meriden was unfair and in clear violation of RLUIPA,” said U.S. Attorney John H. Durham of the District of Connecticut. “We’re pleased that the City of Meriden has agreed to settle this matter without additional litigation, and that members of the Omar Islamic Center will be able to worship in a location of their choice without undue government restraint.”

The proposed consent decree, which was filed today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut and must still be approved by the court, resolves a lawsuit the United States also filed today. After the city denied the Omar Islamic Center’s application to establish a mosque, the United States opened an investigation of the city’s actions in July 2019. In January 2020, the United States notified the city that it had concluded that the city had violated RLUIPA and intended to file suit, and offered the city an opportunity to negotiate a resolution.

The United States’ complaint alleges that the city’s denial of the Omar Islamic Center’s application to establish a mosque imposed a substantial burden on the center’s religious exercise and treated the center, a religious assembly or institution, on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution. The United States’ complaint also alleges that the city’s zoning code treats religious assemblies or institutions on less than equal terms with nonreligious assemblies or institutions in nine zoning districts. The city denies the allegations. As part of the agreement, the city has agreed to review and amend its zoning ordinance to comply with the requirements of RLUIPA, to provide training to its officials and employees about their obligations under RLUIPA, and to notify the public about the city’s compliance with RLUIPA in its zoning and land use actions.

RLUIPA is a federal law that protects religious institutions from unduly burdensome or discriminatory land use regulations. On Sept. 22, the 20th anniversary of RLUIPA’s enactment, the department issued a comprehensive report on its enforcement of the law. In June 2018, the Justice Department announced its Place to Worship Initiative, which focuses on RLUIPA’s provisions that protect the rights of houses of worship and other religious institutions to worship on their land. More information is available at www.justice.gov/crt/placetoworship.

In July 2018, the Department of Justice announced the formation of the Religious Liberty Task Force. The Task Force brings together department components to coordinate their work on religious liberty litigation and policy, and to implement the Attorney General’s 2017 Religious Liberty Guidance.

Individuals who believe they have been subjected to discrimination in land use or zoning decisions may contact the Civil Rights Division Housing and Civil Enforcement Section at (800) 896-7743, or through the complaint portal on the Place to Worship Initiative website. More information about RLUIPA, including questions and answers about the law and other documents, may be found at http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/hce/rluipaexplain.php.

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