Mississippi City Ordered to Allow 2 Muslim Men to Build Mosque, Not Delay Permits

The city of Horn Lake, Mississippi, has been ordered to permit two Muslim men to build a new mosque, as well as banned from delaying permits to do so.

U.S. District Judge Michael P. Mills filed a consent decree Monday in favor of the plaintiffs, Maher Abuirshaid and Riyadh Elkhayyat, for whom the American Civil Liberties Union filed a discrimination lawsuit for two months ago. The consent decree was filed with agreement from both plaintiffs and city officials.

The lawsuit claimed that when the city denied a zoning request for what would become the first mosque in DeSoto County, Mississippi, Horn Lake officials had done so due to anti-Muslim prejudice.

Abuirshaid and Elkhayyatt are residents of DeSoto County and desire to build a mosque for their families and friends, along with other Muslims in the county, to be able to have a place of worship. The closest one is currently in Memphis, with some people having to travel a half-hour or more.

When the lawsuit was filed in November, hours after, Mills wrote that the suit had "very serious, and if proven factually accurate, strong allegations of religious discrimination."

Mill's order mandates that Horn Lake must approve a site plan review application for the proposed mosque, Abraham House of God, that the city previously rejected earlier last year. Regarding any future construction and permit applications for the mosque, the city must act "without any unusual delay and free from any illegal discriminatory intent or effect."

In addition, Mill's order also requires the city to pay Abuirshaid and Elkhayyatt $25,000 and an unnamed amount for attorneys' fees.

Lawsuit, Horn Lake, First Mosque
A lawsuit claimed that when the city denied a zoning request for what would become the first mosque in DeSoto County, Mississippi, Horn Lake officials had done so due to anti-Muslim prejudice. In this photo is a view of King Fahad Mosque in Culver City, California, on May 23, 2020. Chris Delmas/AFP via Getty Images

Heather Weaver, senior staff attorney for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, said the consent decree is "an important victory for religious freedom."

"It affirms the fundamental principle that the government may not base its decisions on bigotry against a particular faith," Weaver said in a news release.

In early 2021, the Horn Lake planning commission recommended that the site plan for the mosque be denied, and the Board of Aldermen voted 5-1 in April to uphold that recommendation. Aldermen said they denied the application because of concerns about insufficient water supply for fire sprinklers and the possibility of traffic and noise.

Numerous residents near the potential mosque site spoke against the project during a city planning meeting.

The lawsuit said city officials "did not work very hard to hide the true reason they denied approval for the project—anti-Muslim prejudice."

"As then-Alderman John E. Jones Jr. told the local newspaper: 'I don't care what they say, their religion says they can lie or do anything to the Jews or gentiles because we're not Muslims,'" said the lawsuit, which argued the government officials violated the First Amendment rights of Abuirshaid and Elkhayyat.

The lawsuit also argued that city officials violated a federal law that gives heightened legal protections in land-use decisions to people groups that face discrimination. It asked the judge to nullify the Horn Lake officials' decisions and to order the city to grant the land-use request for the mosque.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.