Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
In communities across the U.S., zoning laws are being used to obstruct the construction of new mosques and Islamic centers.
On March 6, the Bayonne, New Jersey, zoning board met for six hours to discuss an application to convert a warehouse at the end of a street in a residential neighborhood into a mosque.
Opponents of the proposal, mostly white residents, came up one after the other to the podium. They raised concerns about square footage, capacity, parking, buffer zones, and noise—often in voices quivering with anger. Islamophobia, which had surrounded the proposal since it first surfaced in 2015, was also in the mix. One detractor insisted he wasn’t a bigot because he had Muslim doctors who were very good, but “wanted to know what they believe,” pointing to the group applying for the permit. Another resident went a few steps further. To cast Islam as a dangerous religion, she angrily quoted passages from the Quran.
The supporters, mostly Muslims and residents of color, tried to assuage their neighbors’ concerns about traffic congestion and noise. Some affirmed that they, too, belonged in the Bayonne community—and deserved a place to pray. “I was captain of the swim team for the Bayonne high school, I won a county championship,” Ali Hassan, a Bayonne native, said in his testimony. “I probably swam with some of your kids—they’re my friends.”
At the end of the long, emotional session, the chairman of the zoning board, Mark Urban reprimanded the group. “I understand it’s a passionate issue, but we just went totally off course here,” he said. “It’s not a religious issue, it’s a zoning issue.” Then he and two other members of the board voted against the proposal, tanking the construction of the building.
Zoning opposition to mosques and Islamic civic structures is a “fairly common phenomenon,” Corey Saylor, at the Center for Islamic American Relations (CAIR), tells CityLab. Saylor is the director of the department to monitor and combat Islamophobia at CAIR, and has been keeping track of such local obstructionism. In 2010, when the outcry against the proposed Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero reached a crescendo, he recorded 15 cases around the country. The year before, only two had been brought to his attention. After a lull, local anti-mosque sentiment has come back in vogue: In 2016, CAIR registered 14 cases, accompanied by a 50 percent rise in reports of anti-Muslim incidents, including vandalism, employment discrimination, denial of service, from the previous year.
The reason for the uptick, he believes, is the political rhetoric and policy coming from the top. “When you have the person occupying the highest office in the United States … calling for Muslims to be banned from the country, or compelled to carry special identification cards, that heightens the fear and concern that people at the local level have,” he says. In other words, “Muslim bans,” packaged in ostensibly areligious policy, are manifesting at the local level in the form of Mosque NIMBYism.
The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), passed in 2000, forbids land-use discrimination against religious institutions, and includes zoning decisions that are “unjustifiably burdensome” on religious practice. That’s the main legal tool Muslim communities have to fight local obstructionism. Cities including Yonkers, New York; Prince George’s County, Virginia; and Sterling Heights, Michigan, have faced lawsuits. In many cases, the Department of Justice has stepped in to investigate.
According to a report by Eric W. Treene, DOJ’s special counsel for religious discrimination, “the Civil Rights Division of DOJ has seen a disproportionate number of cases involving mosques and Islamic schools” since RLUIPA has been on the books. Muslims make up roughly 1 percent of the U.S. population, but land-use discrimination against them is incredibly overrepresented in government investigations. Per a 2016 DOJ report:
In particular, the percentage of Department RLUIPA investigations involving mosques or Islamic schools has risen dramatically in the time since the Tenth Anniversary Report was issued—from 15% in the 2000 to August 2010 period to 38% during the period from September 2010 to the present.
According to the New York Times, the Justice Department may now be looking into Bayonne’s decision as well, though advocates fear the appetite to investigate anti-Muslim discrimination is not likely to be a priority of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
But from all of this, one thing is clear: Zoning is not agnostic, as Bayonne’s zoning board chairman suggested. It has long been used as a tool to keep out people that look different, speak other languages, and follow different faiths: Irish Catholics, Jews, the Chinese, and of course, African Americans in the post-slavery era. That tradition is alive and well today.*
”It’s nothing new under the sun,” Saylor says. “It’s the same prejudice. Just the new target.”
*This post has been updated.