Publication in Soc Quarterly: “Would Prefer a Trailer Park to a Large [Religious] Building”

The quote in the title for my newest article just published in The Sociological Quarterly comes from a comment made at a 2011 public hearing in the Chicago suburbs involving a proposal from a Muslim group to buy land. At face value, the claim is preposterous: what suburbanite living in a well-off suburb would want to live next to a trailer park?

My study titled ““Would Prefer a Trailer Park to a Large [Religious] Building”: Suburban Responses to Proposals for Religious Buildings” looks at what factors lead to more opposition from neighbors and local leaders when religious groups look to buy land, construct a building, or renovate/use an existing building. Is it related to the size of proposed building, the setting for the building, or the group making the request (thinking of multiple cases of Muslim groups facing opposition in the Chicago suburbs – see examples here, here, here, and here)?

The abstract to the study:

To worship in the suburbs, religious congregations often have to apply to local  governments for zoning and building approval. Examining 40 proposals from religious groups in three Chicago suburbs between January 2010 and December 2014 shows that local governments approved the majority of requests. For the proposals that received more negative attention or “no” votes from government bodies, opposition was related to locations adjacent to residences, experiences with one local government, and requests from Muslim groups. These findings have implications for how suburbs address pluralism and new development as the application of zoning guidelines can make it more difficult for religious groups, particularly ones involving immigrants or racial/ethnic minorities, to find and establish a permanent presence in suburban communities.

In sum, religious groups in the United States can theoretically worship in many places – until a local government suggests otherwise, often due to zoning concerns. Religious groups can counter with the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) but lawsuits require time and effort and can hinder positive community relations.

Ongoing zoning controversies with mosques in New Jersey

Two recent zoning cases involving proposed mosques in New Jersey have garnered attention. A quick overview of each.

First, a newly filed federal lawsuit in Bayonne, New Jersey:

The mosque is proposed for an old warehouse at the end of a dead-end street on the city’s east side. The structure, built as a factory, previously housed a chapter of the Hired Guns Motorcycle Club, “made up of sworn law enforcement officers,” according to its website

To build the mosque into the existing space, Bayonne Muslims — the nonprofit organization that owns the space — went to the city in August 2015 to request zoning exemptions. It asked for requirements that a buffer between the existing building and adjacent properties be waived, and that it be able to provide less parking than required.
Ultimately, after three tumultuous public hearings, the proposal failed to gain approval at a March 6 meeting. The vote was 4-3 in favor of the project, but a supermajority — greater than the four votes in favor — was required under state law…
During the public hearings, some opponents expressed concern over the traffic and noise a mosque might bring to their dead-end street. Others cited verses from the Koran they asserted supported violence against non-Muslims.

A New Jersey town will pay an Islamic group $3.25 million to settle a lawsuit over its denial of a permit to build a mosque, the Department of Justice announced Tuesday…

The Islamic Society of Basking Ridge sued Bernards Township, an upscale town in central New Jersey, last year, claiming it changed its zoning ordinances in order to deny the group’s plans. The Justice Department also sued the town last year, alleging it treated the group differently than other religious groups…

Central among those was parking: Township planners had concluded that because Friday afternoon was considered peak worship time, congregants would most likely be arriving straight from work and would each need a parking space.

But a federal judge disagreed, and wrote in a ruling Dec. 31 that the town hadn’t conducted similar assessments of worship habits when churches or synagogues had made applications.

The Justice Department lawsuit also alleged the town changed its zoning laws to require houses of worship in residential districts to be at least 6 acres — larger than the lot the Islamic Society had purchased in 2011.

There are multiple issues at play in these cases:
1. Do municipalities apply the same standards to all religious groups? If not, why do particular groups receive more attention? (The two cases above involve Muslim groups. Do orthodox Jewish groups also receive a lot of attention?)
2. Is it legitimate to deny religious land uses for issues like traffic and parking (common complaints in suburban settings regarding many proposed land use changes)? In other words, are these typical NIMBY complaints or is there something unique about religious buildings?
3. Why are a number of these cases popping up in New Jersey? The state has a long history with exclusionary zoning issues – see the Mt. Laurel doctrine which developed out of a lawsuit. Additionally, it is home to a number of white suburbanites living in suburbs that they would like to preserve or protect.
4. Is the only path to resolution a federal lawsuit? Once such cases reach the level of a federal lawsuit, I would argue the communities have already lost. This is not just because RLUIPA cases tend to be settled in favor of the religious groups. I also imagine such lawsuits can bring negative attention to a community; do they really want to be known as the suburb that refused a certain group to worship there?
(These are not issues isolated to New Jersey. Perhaps there are similar conditions in the Chicago area suburbs. See earlier posts about mosque controversies in the Chicago region including here, here, and here.)

Opposition to a proposed mosque in suburban Palos Park

A group wants to convert a former church into a mosque in Palos Park and has encountered opposition:

An anonymous flier circulated in mailboxes and online this month decried plans to open a mosque and community center at the site of a former church in this southwest suburb, roughly a mile from the home of 72-year-old Omar Najib, who intends to pray there.

The Muslim American Society bought the property at 12300 S. 80th Ave. in December and plans to do minor maintenance at the site, with no opening day scheduled yet. The leaflet titled “Save Palos” accused the house of worship of threatening to erode housing values and congest traffic…

Opposition to new mosques has become “almost a given” in the Chicago area as well as throughout the country, a brand of Islamophobia often shrouded in concerns over zoning or urban planning, said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, based in Washington, D.C.

Residents in Bayonne, N.J., rallied last month against plans for a Muslim community center there, bearing signs that read “Stop the Mosque” and “If the Mosque Comes the Mayor Go’s” (sic). Around the same time, members of a Christian group spoke out against a mosque scheduled to open this spring at the site of a former South Milwaukee, Wis., church. In late November, tempers also flared at a forum over an Islamic center proposed in Fredericksburg, Va.

Even as mosques and other non-Christian religious buildings have become more common in the Chicago suburbs, they still occasionally encounter opposition. See earlier posts about mosques and opposition here, here, here, and here. That there are national discussions about Muslims and ongoing conflict with Muslim groups only adds to typical NIMBY concerns from suburbanites.

One hurdle that new religious groups can encounter are local governments which may or may not support their groups. The end of this particular article suggests the mayor of Palos Park “immediately condemned the anonymous leaflet as cowardly.” Yet, would the local government feel the same way if a vocal and sizable portion of the community rallied against the new mosque and community center?

Data on Chicago area mosques through 2010

In 2010, Paul Numrich published data on the 91 mosques in the Chicago region as part of the Pluralism Project at Harvard:

Before 1960, only five mosques could be found in metropolitan Chicago, all within the city limits. From research conducted in the late 1990s, I estimated that there were 67 mosques in the six-county region (cf. Numrich 2004). In a 2010 research project, I verified the locations of the 91 mosques shown on the accompanying map. This essay describes my research methods and findings for the 2010 project and discusses some implications of Islam’s growing institutional presence on Chicago’s (and America’s) religious landscape…

53% of the mosques (48 of 91) are located in the city of Chicago, 47% (43 of 91) in the suburbs. Notable clustering of mosques can be found on the city’s north and south sides (due to residential patterns of immigrants and African Americans, respectively) and in suburban Cook and DuPage Counties, the latter one of the wealthiest counties in the nation…

77% of the mosques (70 of 91) have adapted their facilities for use as a mosque. These include several former Christian churches, such as Islamic Community Center of Illinois on Chicago’s north side (see photo on map, courtesy author). Two mosques meet in functioning churches, including Batavia Islamic Center in the western suburbs (see map), which is featured in my book, The Faith Next Door (Numrich 2009: chapter 4)…

Nearly two-thirds of the mosques (58 of 91) have some exterior indication of their Islamic identity that would be recognizable to the average American passerby, such as domes, minarets, Islamic symbols, or English signage. All but two of the 21 newly built mosques have such recognizable Islamic markers, such as Masjid Al-Faatir on Chicago’s south side with its impressive dome and minarets (see photo on map, courtesy Frederick J. Nachman).

As Numrich notes, the number and locations of mosques is fluid and thus might have changed by 2015. Still, there is good data here (involving driving more than 2,400 miles to check out the locations) and the page includes a Google map with all the locations.

Come to think about it, I haven’t seen many stories recently about new mosques or communities objecting to proposals for mosques. Back in the early 2010s, this was a hot topic: see earlier posts here, here, and here. But, given the number of mosques within the Chicago region as well as some of the reaction to these high profile cases, it seems as though this is now normal. Even Wheaton, the “Protestant Vatican,” saw the opening of a mosque in late 2013.

Mosque spokesman Abraham Antar said he and his fellow congregants are excited about their new home, which he said is Wheaton’s first Muslim community.

“Wheaton is a city of faith, and we’re very privileged to be able to establish an Islamic community for Wheaton and especially for the western suburbs,” he said. “There are a lot of Muslims in Wheaton and the surrounding towns. It’s unfortunate for the (First Assembly of God) church that they lost their opportunity to stay there.”

Antar also said Islamic Center of Wheaton leaders are looking forward to getting to know other religious institutions in the area.

I don’t know how those conversations with other religious institutions are going but it would have been hard for Wheaton residents decades ago to imagine seeing a mosque within city limits.

Play explores idea of a proposed mosque for downtown Naperville

Inspired by reactions to a proposed mosque in Naperville several years ago (and another proposed mosque received opposition), a playwright has put together a script that involves a proposed mosque in downtown Naperville:

Khoury said he’s seen the same response elsewhere, including in unincorporated land near Naperville. The Irshad Learning Center in 2010 took to court its attempt to win DuPage County’s approval of the needed conditional use permit for a worship center on property it owns on 75th Street east of Naper Boulevard, just across the city border.

Neighbors of the 3-acre parcel had ardently opposed the center, voicing concerns about traffic, lighting and noise, with support from the Naperville Tea Patriots and the anti-Islamic organization Act! for America. After a divided County Board in January 2010 denied the request, the matter wound up in federal court, with Irshad claiming its Constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and equal protection had been denied. Northern Illinois District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer ruled in March 2013 that the county improperly withheld the permit, in part citing the outside groups’ role in the process. The Irshad board is preparing to open the center later this year…

The play centers on a proposal from a ficticious group called Al Ulama, which has prayer space in a Naperville neighborhood but wants to move to headquarters on the actual site of the downtown Naperville Nichols Library, property owned in the play by Truth Lutheran Church. The plan calls for razing the church annex and building a new 100,000-square-foot structure on the same footprint, an Islamic worship site that’s taller than the previous building. In the play a town hall meeting has been scheduled to present the plans…

“The fear really is of Muslims: What’s this going to do to our downtown? Is it going to scare people away?” he said.

While fictional, this does present an intriguing hypothetical. Would any religious group be allowed to utilize valuable downtown land for a religious building? Downtown Naperville is a business and civic center but communities can sometimes protect properties in order to keep them on the tax rolls. There are churches within several blocks of downtown Naperville but I can’t think of any immediately within the business and civic district.

The end of the article says there will be public readings of the play in Naperville in the next month or so. It will be interesting to hear about reactions…

DuPage County Board wants judge to tell them what to do about proposed mosque

The DuPage County Board was due to vote on a proposed mosque yesterday but put off the vote to hear more from a federal judge:

But first they want a clarification about exactly what the judge wants them to do…The delay came after a closed-door session, where some county board members raised questions about U.S. District Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer’s decision to overturn a January 2010 vote by the board that denied the permit…

“Either you tell us we violated the rules and what we’re going to do, or you let us make the decision,” Larsen said. “You can’t tell us to take another look at it and then tell us what decision to reach. That violates separation of powers.”

I must be missing something here. Is there a chance the Board doesn’t want to do what the judge suggested? The article says several times that this is not the case. Here is one example:

None of the issues raised by board members are “deal-breaker concerns,” Cronin said. He said board members just want to have a discussion about how to achieve the desired outcome.

“We just want to talk a little bit about how we get there,” said Cronin, adding that county officials “would like to put the matter behind us sooner rather than later.”

Do they want the judge to be more explicit so that she provides political cover for the decision? We’ll have to wait and see what happens…

Reminder in Willowbrook mosque case: IL municipalities have zoning jurisdiction 1.5 miles beyond boundaries

As the Willowbrook mosque situation continues, the Village of Willowbrook clarified an important detail regarding Illinois municipalities and zoning:

Village consultant Jo Ellen Charlton said the village has decided to release a zoning map showing its area of influence for planning purposes after receiving questions from MECCA about whether it had the right to express its opposition.

A dotted line forming a box along 91st Street, just past the proposed location, is now shown on the map to indicate the village’s intention to exert influence over planning decisions in the area. Because the proposed location lies within 1.5 miles of a Willowbrook boundary line, it is considered within the village’s “planning jurisdiction,” officials said.

Even though the proposed site for the mosque is outside the boundaries of Willowbrook, Illinois law gives incorporated municipalities zoning control over land within 1.5 miles of their boundaries. This control was confirmed by a 1956 Illinois Supreme Court decision in favor of Naperville’s subdivision control ordinance, which said developers had to follow certain guidelines for streets and other subdivision features, extending to the 1.5 mile zoning boundary land. If two communities both could control the same land within the 1.5 mile boundary, either the two communities had to reach an agreement or the control would be set at a line in the middle of the two community’s actual boundaries. Land outside any community’s zoning boundaries is then controlled by the county.

This law has led to some interesting circumstances. For example, the suburb of Warrenville finally incorporated in the 1960s after many attempts because Naperville was expanding and would soon be able to control land around and possibly in Warrenville. At least several DuPage County suburbs have grabbed extra land through annexations in order to extend their zoning boundaries and therefore control land uses, particularly looking to avoid undesirable land uses.

This reminds me of a larger point: while zoning may seem arcane to the average citizen, it is a key tool communities can use and they (officials and residents) will fight hard to utilize these powers rather than let other people decide what “their land” will be used for.