Muslim Advocates represents a small Muslim community in Northern Virginia that was unjustly denied a permit to build a mosque in their community.
The Islamic Center of Culpeper (ICC) is a small, close-knit Muslim community in the County of Culpeper, Virginia (County). In 2011, the ICC commenced a search to find a permanent facility to conduct its worship services. The ICC’s five-year search finally concluded in January 2016, when it entered into a purchase contract to buy a small parcel of land. During this time, they continued worshiping in a small house adjacent to a used car dealership in Culpeper—a space completely unsuitable for their community’s needs.
The ICC was informed by the local health department that because the property they bought had soil that would not support a traditional septic tank and drain field, the ICC would need to apply for a permanent pump and haul permit with the County. Since 1995, all but one pump and haul permit application submitted to the County had been approved; in that time period, all of the permit applications submitted by houses of worship (all from churches) had been approved. After members of the local community raised objections concerning the ICC’s pump and haul application, the Culpeper Board of Supervisors voted, in April 2016, to deny the ICC’s application. The County further curbed the ICC’s efforts to build its mosque by ordering consecutive moratoria on any new pump and haul applications in August and November 2016, thereby barring the ICC from any attempts to re-apply. In January 2017, the Board of Supervisors approved an onerous new pump and haul policy which provided that the County would not support pump and haul as a permanent sewage solution “except in the rarest of circumstances and upon sufficient demonstration of extreme hardship conditions.”
In December 2016, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed suit against the County, alleging claims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) (United States v. County of Culpeper, W.D. Va. Case No. 16-83). Specifically, the DOJ suit alleged that the County’s treatment and denial of the ICC’s pump and haul permit application imposed a substantial burden on the ICC’s religious exercise and that the County treated the ICC differently from other applicants on the basis of religion or religious denomination, both in violation of RLUIPA. In March 2017, the ICC, represented by Muslim Advocates and the law firm of Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP also filed suit against the County. In addition to bringing claims under RLUIPA, the ICC brought claims under the U.S. and Virginia Constitutions.
When the County tried to dismiss the DOJ’s case, United States District Judge Norman Moon denied the motion. In his opinion, Judge Moon held that the “facts alleged support an inference that the contemporaneous, supposed reasons for denial . . . were pretexts for religious discrimination.” He also concluded that the DOJ’s complaint “contains far more than ‘sheer speculation’ of religious bias,” and instead that the allegations in the case “support the conclusion that ICC’s religion motivated the County’s permit denial.”
In April 2017, the ICC and the County reached a settlement in the case. Through those terms, the County agreed to:
- (i) approve the ICC’s original pump and haul permit application;
- (ii) not to delay or hinder the expeditious approval of any further applications related to the construction or beneficial use of a mosque by the ICC;
- (iii) issue a public statement of welcome to the ICC; and
- (iv) compensate the ICC for direct, out-of-pocket expenses totaling $10,000.
In consideration for those actions, the ICC agreed to dismiss its action. The parties agreed that the Court will retain jurisdiction to enforce the terms of the settlement agreement. In April 2017, the County’s Board of Supervisors voted to approve the terms of the settlement agreement. The ICC has begun moving forward with the development of its site.
In September 2017, Judge Moon dismissed the DOJ’s suit as moot in light of the successful settlement between the ICC and the County.
Date filed: March 9, 2017
Court(s): United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia
Co-Counsel: Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP