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Religious Freedom For Me, But Not For Thee

WorldNetDaily loves it when Christians invoke a federal law designed to stop zoning discrimination against religious institutions. It's much less happy, however, when Muslims make use of the very same law.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 4/26/2017

Leo Hohmann

WorldNetDaily has a very limited view of religious freedom in America. It believes Christians have absolute religious freedom; other religions -- and especially Muslims -- not so much.

One key way WND expresses this double standard is through its reporting on the use of a federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which is designed to protect religious institutions from discrimination in local zoning and landmarking laws. Shortly after its passage in 2000, WND published a column by Jerry Falwell cheering how RLUIPA "will be a powerful tool for religious liberty" and touted how the legal arm of his empire, Liberty Counsel, "will give you free advice regarding your rights as a religious entity under the new RLUIPA."

The next year, WND was already publishing stories of organizations invoking RLUIPA and how the Department of Justice was using RLUIPA to intervene in local cases regarding religious organizations, a practice that has continued more or less regularly to this day.

One recent example is this a Nov. 24 article in which Bob Unruh tells the sob story:

The situation didn’t seem that alarming. A Christian school needed to move to more economic, and yet bigger, facilities.

As such schools usually are, the Livingston Christian School in Genoa Township, Michigan, was on a tight budget, but it located a facility available at the nearby Brighton Church of the Nazarene, and made plans for the move.

The local planning commission approved the plan, the community supported it, and even experts summoned by the township endorsed the strategy.

Then the town council rejected the application, a decision that prompted a court case that now is pending before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The brief there, submitted by First Liberty, warns that the rejection is a violation of federal law because it threatens the very existence of the religious outreach.

This being a Bob Unruh article, it went without saying he wasn't telling the full story. Indeed, as real news outlets reported, the town's rejection of the special use permit has been upheld in lower courts because, despite its current claims, the school had an option to use another location and has acted upon it.

But Unruh also played up how the religious school's attorneys, First Liberty, are suing the township under RLUIPA, quoting its lawyer touting how "First Liberty has won multiple cases using RLUIPA" and that "we won a landmark case ... in the 5th Federal Circuit Court when a town used zoning regulations against a religious institution."

There is one common thread linking all of these stories: The religious organizations it promoted as benefiting from RLUIPA are all Christian. When a Muslim organization invokes RLUIPA, the tone is much different at WND.

A month prior to Unruh's item, in an Oct. 2 article, WND's chief Muslim-basher, Leo Hohmann, complained that a different township in Michigan agreed to pay $1.7 million to a Muslim group after blocking its planned construction of a school. Hohmann is much more negative about use of RLUIPA than Unruh was:

The tentative settlement agreed to by Pittsfield Township would be one of the largest cash payouts ever by a U.S. municipality to a mosque. The deal could send shock waves throughout the nation among communities fighting to keep large mosques and madrasas out of residential areas.


The Pittsfield case, by the sheer amount of the payout, could have a chilling effect on any city or town considering a mosque location or expansion, say legal experts. Many such legal battles are in process, including a major one in nearby Sterling Heights, Michigan, reported recently by WND.

“It’s not surprising,” said Karen Lugo, a constitutional law attorney with expertise in the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal statute under which the Michigan Muslims claimed discrimination.


Pittsfield Township, a community just outside of Ann Arbor, denied the construction permit saying the project would be incompatible with the surrounding residential zoning and would cause undue traffic and congestion.

But the owner of the property, a Shariah-compliant Ann Arbor mosque backed by the Council on American-Islamic Relations or CAIR, filed suit against Pittsfield Township in 2012.

The U.S. Justice Department joined the case last year on the side of the mosque, claiming Pittsfield was violating RLUIPA, a law passed by Congress in 2000 that prohibits local governments from imposing zoning regulations that “substantially burden” religious rights “unless there is a compelling government interest.”


The percentage of federal RLUIPA investigations involving mosques or Islamic schools has risen from 15 percent in the 2000 to August 2010 period to 38 percent during the September 2010 to present period, according to a DOJ report posted on July 27.

The Pittsfield Township settlement, while one of the largest ever won by a mosque against a municipality in America, is not the only large settlement in recent years. Some have included not only cash but free land, Lugo said.

The law that Hohmann is discussing so ominously is the very same law Unruh was cheering when Christians were invoking.

(By the way, the "constitutional law attorney" Hohmann cites, Karen Lugo, is the author of a book that describes how to stop mosques by using local zoning and land-use statutes -- the very thing RLUIPA was intended to prohibit.)

Another Michigan mosque: RLUIPA suddenly bad!

Last August, Hohmann touted how the city of sterling Heights, Mich., rejected a planned "mega-mosque" in the city. Just how big was this "mega-mosque" to be? Actually, just 21,000 square feet, slightly bigger than an Aldi grocery store, which nobody would describe as "mega."

By further contrast, actual megachurches are much larger. One in Illinois, for instance, spans a whopping 193,000 square feet.

Hohmann went on to express disdain that "the Muslims" who wanted to build it were calling for a federal investigation under RLUIPA. Hohmann did his usual anti-Muslim fearmongering, claiming that "Most of the Muslims moving into Sterling Heights, Madison Heights, Troy and the surrounding area have been imported by the federal government’s refugee resettlement program, which pays Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services to settle them in apartments and affordable housing" -- then, unironically, in the very next paragraph complains that the lawsuit over the denial of the mosque "attributes the backlash to simple racism."

In February, when Sterling Heights officials neared an settlement agreement that would allow construction of the mosque, Hohmann went into freakout mode. Under the headline "Mega-mosque being forced on Christian refugee community," Hohmann intoned in a Feb. 20 article using violent imagery (highlighted in bold):

A city of 130,000 people in southeastern Michigan is under the gun of Islamic pressure following its denial of a mega-mosque in a residential neighborhood populated largely by Christian refugees who fled Islamic persecution in Iraq.

Hohmann, it seems, wants you to presume that all Muslims are violent terrorists. And, again, that's the same "mega-mosque" the size of a small grocery store.

Hohmann again complained that RLUIPA is" being used to coerce cities into approving mosques, even when the mosque is in a residential neighborhood." He said nothing about the same law being used to "coerce cities" into approving Christian church buildings.

Hohmann also claimed: "As WND has reported, the Obama administration used this law increasingly against communities denying mosques and less against those denying the construction of churches." But that's not exactly true. Hohmann claimed in his August article that "The percentage of federal DOJ investigations involving mosques or Islamic schools has risen from 15 percent in the 2000 to August 2010 period to 38 percent during the September 2010 to present period, according to the DOJ," citing a DOJ report on RLUIPA.

Hohmann seems to have forgotten that Christian churches have much less trouble getting built because America is a majority Christian country.

Hohmann goes on to quote Ramsay Dass, president of the American Middle East Christian Congress, as saying, "RELUIPA [sic], the way it is written, you cannot win, and the cities don’t have enough funds to hire the lawyers to fight this. It depends on whichever minority has the favored status of the government at any time, you go against that and they’re now going to lose, period." We're pretty sure WND will never quote Dass, or anyone else, saying this in an article about a Christian church invoking RLUIPA.

On Feb. 22, after Sterling Heights approved the deal, Hohmann ramped up the melodrama in an article headlined "Frightened Christians lose battle over U.S. mega-mosque":

In the end, the Iraqi Christians of Sterling Heights, Michigan, say they felt abandoned and left vulnerable by their government.

It didn’t matter that they had escaped genocide in the Middle East.

It didn’t matter they had 180 people at the City Council meeting Tuesday to voice their concerns about a large mosque being proposed in the middle of their neighborhood.

It didn’t matter, they say, that Donald Trump is their new president or that Jeff Sessions is the new attorney general.

They lost. The Muslims won.

The city on Tuesday night agreed to a settlement with a Muslim group that wants to build a mega-mosque on 15 Mile at Mound Road, in the heart of a residential area filled with Christians who escaped Muslim persecution in Iraq.

Yes, Hohmann is still calling this smallish building a "mega-mosque," and he's still complaining that RLUIPA "was increasingly used under the Obama administration to bully local governments into accepting controversial mosque projects."

Showing his anti-Muslim bias even more, Hohmann quoted almost exclusively critics of the mosque and the settlement deal. At no point did Hohmann present any evidence that the Muslims who would attend this mosque posed a direct violent threat, or ever directly threatened with violence, anyone in that neighborhood -- he simply assumes that all Muslims are violent.

Hohmann was still at in a March 13 article, ranting about the "mega-mosque" and blaming "Barack Obama’s Department of Justice" for the legal action against the city. Curiously, Hohmann omitted any mention of RLUIPA being the basis for the action against the city. He went on to complain that the proposed mosque "will become the third mosque in Sterling Heights," failing to mention that there are at least 64 churches in Sterling Heights, so three mosques isn't really that a big of a deal.

Hohmann again maliciously portrays the Muslim community in Sterling Heights as building the mosque to intimidate a group of Christians that live in the neighborhood where the mosque is to be built, and he raged that "Obama’s DOJ forced a madrassa on Pittsfield Township, near Ann Arbor." In fact, what was permitted was a school; Hohmann wants to maliciously portray it as a place where potential Islamist terrorists are created, like right-wingers do.

New Jersey mosque: RLUIPA censored

Unruh struck again in a March 31 article about "a case brought by Mohammed Ali Chaudry and the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge against Bernards Township, [New Jersey]," which is trying to build a mosque, a case that in part involves "the apparent intervention of the Obama administration against the local government, even while the public hearings over the project were ongoing."

Remember, federal intervention was a good thing when the religious institution being allegedly discriminated against was Christian.

As is WND's biased standard, Unruh quoted only opponents of the mosque, as is to be expected given that he's merely rewriting a press release from the right-wing Thomas More Law Center, which is representing mosque opponents who apparently don't want to be held accountable for their words. Unruh also quotes Karen Lugo, whom he describes only as "a specialist on constitutional law and zoning issues," not mentioning that she's an anti-Muslim activist whose actual expertise is trying to subvert RLUIPA.

That's what seems to be the case here, in which the township required that the mosque have more than twice as many parking spaces than it requires for a similarly sized church. Unruh does acknowledge this, but also complained that the Department of Justice, "under an agenda imposed by Obama, sued Bernards Township" over the planned mosque.

What Unruh doesn't mention, however, is that the "agenda" the DOJ is using is RLUIPA, and as a real news outlet reported, a federal judge found Bernards Township guilty of violating it by demanding an excessive number of parking spaces in denying zoning for the mosque after a four-year battle. WND has repeatedly praised Christian organizations who invoked RLUIPA against alleged municipal discrimination.

Unruh said nothing about RLUIPA being the basis for the legal action, even though the Thomas More press release did -- just as Hohmann ultimately failed to do in writing about the legal action regarding the proposed Michigan mosque.

The headline on Unruh's article calls the legal action "mosque lawfare." We're pretty sure WND used the term "church lawfare" to describe any Christian organization that invoked RLUIPA.

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