A New York Islamic center is suing the City of Yonkers for landmarking a 108-year-old house owned by the group in an alleged bid to stop it from turning the mansion into a mosque.
The Islamic Community Center for Mid Westchester, which filed the federal lawsuit Wednesday in U.S. District Court in New York’s Southern District, accuses the City of Yonkers of religious discrimination and constitutional violations when the city in June landmarked a house the center bought last year.
The lawsuit said the designation, applied for by the Colonial Heights Association of Taxpayers, was a “pretext to discriminate against plaintiffs because of their religion, their religious practices, and against their religious institution.”
Exterior changes to landmarked buildings must go through an approval process.
“The landmark designation severely restricts the nature and type of renovations [the center] can undertake on its property,” the lawsuit reads. “The landmark designation denies [the center] the right to have a house of worship bearing all relevant Islamic characteristics.”
City of Yonkers spokeswoman Christina Gilmartin told NBC News in an email that the Islamic Community Center for Mid Westchester can open a mosque and the city is ready to help.
“But welcoming this congregation does not mean that the independent findings of our Historic Landmarks Board can be completely disregarded,” she said. “Hundreds of other building owners, and in some cases entire neighborhoods, manage to comply with historic preservation requirements. So must they.”
The Islamic center’s lawsuit alleges the City of Yonkers violated both the state and federal constitutions, as well as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), passed unanimously by Congress in 2000.
RLUIPA prohibits zoning and landmarking laws that treat churches and religious assemblies unequally to nonreligious institutions; that discriminate against assemblies based on religion or totally exclude them; and that unreasonably limit religious assemblies, institutions, or structures, according to the Justice Department.
It wasn’t immediately clear how many RLUIPA lawsuits were filed this year for proposed mosques. One was brought in March by the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, in New Jersey, which is suing the Bernards Township planning board for allegedly rejecting a mosque proposal because of anti-Muslim animus.
In recent years, the number of RLUIPA suits filed by the Justice Department involving mosques or Islamic schools has risen sharply — from 15 percent, between 2000 and 2010, to 38 percent, between September 2010 and July 2016, according to a Justice Department report.
In the Yonkers case, the first of three separate landmark applications came three months after the Islamic center, through congregation fundraising, purchased the house last March for $750,000, court papers said. The property was zoned for both residential use and houses of worships, according to the lawsuit.
“Hundreds of other building owners, and in some cases entire neighborhoods, manage to comply with historic preservation requirements. So must they.”
But at a meet-and-greet last September, as the landmark application was pending, some attendees voiced concerns that a mosque would “change the look of the neighborhood,” the lawsuit alleges, and that tax revenue would drop because the Islamic center is tax exempt. That, they argued, would drive down property values in the neighborhood, according to the suit.
There were also rumors, the lawsuit alleges, that the center would demolish the property and build a mosque with minarets, the towers from which Muslim worshippers are called to prayer.
In January, the city’s planning board ruled there wasn’t a need for another house of worship, and that landmarking the structure wouldn’t cause hardship to the center’s members since the area already had enough religious institutions, the lawsuit said. Congregation members later told the mayor, however, that they have to travel miles to reach the nearest mosque, court papers said.
Following a public hearing, the Landmark Preservation Board in April found that the Islamic center’s house “was illustrative of growth and development of the city and had unique architectural qualities,” a finding the Islamic center disputes, court papers said. The Yonkers City Council later voted along party lines for landmark designation, with Republicans for it and Democrats against it, and the mayor signed the resolution on May 27, according to court documents.
Defendants named in the lawsuit also include the Landmark Preservation Board, the city’s planning board, the mayor, four Republican city councilmembers, and a Republican district county legislator.
The Islamic Community Center for Mid Westchester is asking the court to block the City of Yonkers from enforcing the landmark designation, and to award attorneys’ fees as well as compensatory damages no less than $25 million.