A New York Islamic center filed a notice of appeal this week after a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit it brought against the city of Yonkers in a bid to build a mosque.
The suit, filed in September by The Islamic Community Center for Mid Westchester, accused the city of Yonkers of religious discrimination and constitutional violations when the city last June made a house the center had bought in 2015 a landmark. Exterior changes to landmarked buildings must go through an approval process.
But Judge Vincent L. Briccetti of New York’s Southern District tossed out the lawsuit last month, writing in part that the Islamic community center’s complaint did not explain why the landmark resolution was unconstitutional.
The center accused the city of Yonkers of violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which prohibits zoning and landmarking laws that treat churches and religious assemblies unequally to nonreligious institutions.
“We are disappointed with the District Court’s decision,” Omar Mohammedi, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “The Court chose to ignore [the center’s] RLUIPA claims and RLUIPA legal standards, thereby denying [the center] judicial review under the [RLUIPA] statute.”
Michael Curti, corporation counsel for Yonkers said in a statement released to NBC News that the center “is welcome to open a mosque at their desired location in the city.”
“It's unfortunate they continue to prosecute this meritless case when they can be spending their time working with the City of Yonkers, which stands ready to help them in their efforts in providing a place of worship for their congregation,” the statement reads.
According to the lawsuit, the first of three separate landmark applications came three months after the Islamic center, through congregation fundraising, purchased the century-old house in March 2015 for $750,000, court papers said. The property was zoned for both residential use and houses of worships, according to the lawsuit.
But at a meet-and-greet in September 2015, as the landmark application was pending, some attendees voiced concerns that a mosque would “change the look of the neighborhood,” the lawsuit alleged, 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 alleged, that the center would demolish the property and build a mosque with minarets, the towers from which Muslim worshippers are called to prayer.
Last 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 a 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 last 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 disputed, 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, 2016, according to court documents.
The lawsuit charged that 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.”
It wasn’t immediately clear how many RLUIPA lawsuits have been filed this year for proposed mosques.
But in recent years, the number of such investigations brought by the Justice Department involving mosques or Islamic schools has risen comparatively sharply — from 15 percent of all RLUIPA investigations between 2000 and 2010 to 38 percent between September 2010 and July 2016, according to a Justice Department report.
The Justice Department in November sued Bernards Township in New Jersey around eight months after the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge filed a RLUIPA lawsuit when its years-long bid to build a mosque was turned down.
The township settled those lawsuits in May, agreeing to pay the Islamic society $3.25 million.