LOS ANGELES (AP) — A Southern California mosque filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday alleging that the small suburban city of Lomita engaged in religious discrimination when it rejected an application to rebuild and expand the worship facility.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, seeks an injunction ordering the city to approve the proposal by the Islamic Center of the South Bay, damages and reimbursement for costs incurred during a planning process that has lasted more than three years and included multiple revisions to satisfy residents' concerns.
The mosque has operated in the city since 1985 and owns eight aging and dilapidated buildings on several different parcels it bought up over the years, said Ameena Qazi, an attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which is representing the mosque. It wants to build a two-story, 14,320-square-foot mosque to replace the current buildings and add a prayer center for the 200 Muslims who worship there, according to court papers.
The city's planning commission recommended that the City Council approve the plans after extensive revisions, including shortening the mosque's minaret by more than 4 feet. The City Council rejected the plan last year, however, citing concerns over increased traffic and parking problems.
The decision had nothing to do with religious bias but with zoning and planning issues, said City Attorney Christi Hogin.
The worship center is near two schools and parking is already a problem during Friday prayers, when attendance at the mosque is greatest and the schools are letting out, she said. The Islamic Center's proposal would also require a number of variances and zoning changes because of the odd-shaped parcels of land, she said.
"I'm not blind to the fact that this is the post-9/11 world and there's a lot of Islamaphobia that exists, but I don't see that here. I really don't," Hogin said in a phone interview. "The issue is just coming up with a building that works."
Qazi believes anti-Islam sentiment is behind the refusal and said a resident who attended a mosque outreach luncheon said he and others were worried the expanded facility would increase the Muslim population in Lomita from 1 percent to 30 percent.
"We think this is patently a case of discrimination," she said. "The things the city is citing as concerns are actually things that have been dealt with, and the new facility will actually resolve at lot of the issues that exist. These bureaucratic hurdles are Mosque Opposition 101."
The U.S. Department of Justice launched an inquiry last year to determine whether the city of Lomita violated a federal law known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act when they rejected the proposal. That inquiry is ongoing, Qazi said.
The lawsuit alleges violations of the same federal law.
The 20,000-person city 20 miles south of Los Angeles is not the first Southern California city to grapple with opposition to a mosque.
The Islamic Center of the Temecula Valley sparked protests last year over plans to build a 25,000-square-foot, two-story mosque in the city about 90 miles southeast of Los Angeles. Work on that mosque coincided with the debate over plans to build a mosque and cultural center two blocks from the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Temecula's planning commission approved the mosque and the City Council denied an appeal from opponents last January.