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Federal Judge Tells City of Horn Lake to Settle Mosque Permit Case Privately

Maher Abuurshaid (right) and his family (left) attended the Nov. 3, 2021, ACLU press conference that was held following the filing of Abraham House of God’s legal appeal against the Horn Lake Board of Aldermen for denying permits for a Horn Lake mosque. The Elk family, Pastor Steve Stone and others attended the conference at Latimer Lakes Park in Horn Lake. Photo by Grace Marion

HORN LAKE and OXFORD, Miss.—The City of Horn Lake should pursue a private settlement to allow the Abraham House of God to obtain permits to build a mosque, Federal District Judge Michael P. Mills said in an order this morning. The mosque was originally blocked from moving forward in spring 2021.

A legal complaint claimed that at least one Horn Lake alderman recognizes the denial of the mosque’s building permits as discrimination, Mills wrote. As a result, he added, “this court strongly suggests that they voluntarily enter into settlement negotiations regarding the resolution of this matter.

The Horn Lake Board of Aldermen rejected the Abraham House of God mosque building plan, shown here, in spring 2021. The plan was displayed at the ACLU press conference on Nov. 3, 2021, 2021, in Horn Lake.

“If we can have Baptist churches, Methodist churches, Pentecostal churches on every corner and have the freedom to religion, we also should be able to allow our our Islamic Muslim friends to have the same worship,” Roberts said at the May 4, 2021, Horn Lake Board of Aldermen meeting. “I support the freedom of religion, and I will stand behind the freedom of religion for everybody.”

The judge made it clear that a private settlement was more than a suggestion. “Barring such a settlement, this court will proceed with all due haste in ascertaining the truth or falsity of the allegations raised in the Complaint,” Mills said. “Given the seriousness of the issues raised in this case, this court intends to move expeditiously in scheduling a hearing and making a ruling regarding the issues raised herein.”

ACLU: ‘Clearly Motivated by Anti-Muslim Bigotry’

Judge Mills’ order was in response to a lawsuit the Mississippi American Civil Liberties Union filed at the federal courthouse in Oxford this morning. The ACLU claims that the City of Horn Lake unjustly denied the Abraham House of God mosque a building permit, representatives said at a press conference this morning.

Josh Tom, the Mississippi ACLU legal director, opened the press conference. “A mosque is for Muslims as a church is for Christians or a synagogue is to Jewish people,” Tom said.

Memphis Imam Anwar Arafat (left) and Abraham House of God co-founders Ray Elk (center) and Maher Abuurshaid (right) spoke at the ACLU press conference in Horn Lake, Miss, on Nov. 3, 2021 at the Latimer Lake Park Pavilion. Photo by Grace Marion

There are 13 churches in Horn Lake and 132 churches in DeSoto county as a whole, but not a single mosque within the county, Tom explained.

“The City’s decision was clearly motivated by anti-Muslim bigotry,” Tom said, before quoting the comments former Horn Lake Alderman Johnny Jones Jr. said when he raised a motion to reject the mosque’s building plans.

The ACLU lawsuit against the City of Horn Lake for denying a mosque application was filed in conjunction with Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP at the federal courthouse in Oxford on Nov. 3, 2021.

“If you let them build it, they will come,” Jones said at the April 20 Board of Aldermen meeting, which the Commercial Appeal first reported. “I think we need to stop it before it gets here.”

Ray Elk and Maher Abuirshaid, the co-founders of the Abraham House of God mosque, were originally denied permits to build the Abraham House of God at a meeting last spring.

The two men spoke at the press conference this morning.

“Without a local mosque, my family and I cannot practice our religion as we would like,” Abuirshaid said. “We are often unable to attend Friday prayer, afternoon prayer services. … We are unable to fully practice observance and celebration of Islamic holidays, including evening prayer services during the holy month of Ramadan.”

“I hope the City of Horn Lake does the right thing by reversing this discriminatory decision,” Abuirshaid said.

‘This Misconception That Muslims Are Foreigners’

Memphis Imam Anwar Arafat spoke at the press conference today as well. “As an American Muslim, it’s really difficult for me to imagine life without a mosque,” Arafet said.

Arafat was born in Utah and raised as a Muslim in Salt Lake City. For him, life without a mosque is a life “without a place of community, a place of worship, a place where I can meet friends and feel safe, and grow and learn as an individual.”

“There’s this misconception that Muslims are foreigners, or Muslims are not American, when in fact, Muslims have been in America since its inception,” Arafat said.

“We’re blessed, in Tennessee, at least to have some mosques. But, you know, for our brothers and sisters in Mississippi, it’s very sad that they have to go through (this),” Arafat said. “Especially hearing all this negative rhetoric and anti-Muslim hate and xenophobia and all these things.”

Ray Elk (center), who is planning to build a mosque in Horn Lake, Miss., laughs in conversation with his associates and family at the federal courthouse in Oxford, Miss., on Nov. 3, 2021, after a press conference about their ACLU lawsuit against the City of Horn Lake. Photo by Grace Marion

“One would assume that we’re in 2021 (and) that these outdated, incorrect, completely wrong stereotypes wouldn’t still exist—and unfortunately, they do,” Arafat said.

“We hope that we can reach out to that American spirit of being a good neighbor, of understanding what it means to be a good American, that I grew up with, that is in fact compatible with my Islamic faith,” Arafat said. “I know with Christian faith and Jewish faith and every faith out there (it is important) to be tolerant of one’s neighbor, to be accommodating for them and to show compassion.”

Building the Friendship Foundation

Steve Stone, former pastor of Heartsong Church in Cordova, Tenn., reached out to the City of Horn Lake last spring after hearing they had denied the mosque its building permits.  “Several years ago, a group of Muslims bought land right across the street from us,” Stone said. “I didn’t know any Muslims.”

Former Heartsong Church Pastor Steve Stone spoke at the ACLU press conference in Oxford, Miss., on Nov. 3, 2021, in favor of allowing a mosque in Horn Lake, Miss. Stone’s church developed a relationship with their neighboring mosque in Cordova, Tenn. Photo by Grace Marion

“I felt a little fear about that, but I know fear is not supposed to make our decisions for us,” Stone said.

“These people were actually our neighbors right across the street, and we found a way to welcome them into our community,” Stone said. “And out of that, those new neighbors became great friends, and out of that great friendship, the Friendship Foundation was formed.”

Stone had worked with the mosque next to his church to create the Memphis Friendship Foundation several years ago “with the mission of providing opportunities to make friends among people of all races, cultures. and faiths,” Stone said.

‘They Will Never Assimilate’

The ACLU partnered with attorney Jonathan Youngwood of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP for this case. Youngwood was the last to speak at the press conference before questions were taken.

“Majority does not rule when it comes to individual rights,” Youngwood said.

Youngwood quoted several discriminatory comments made by community members, several of which this journalist reported in the Mississippi Free Press last spring. “One community speaker said they’re not subject to our laws, they’re subject to their laws,” Youngwood said.

Family, friends and supporters of the Abraham House of God lawsuit against the City of Horn Lake remained at the press conference’s location after it finished on Nov. 3, 2021, discussing the situation at the Latimer Lake Park Pavilion. Photo by Grace Marion

The attorney even quoted community members’ Facebook comments regarding the mosque construction. “This is wrong on so many levels,” one commenter said, according to the lawsuit. “They’re supposed to assimilate to our country, not us to theirs.”

The reply to this comment, from another user, was: “They will never assimilate. Their religion is to take over and kill the infidels. That’s us.”

Youngwood outlined what he and his team see as four violations to the federal 2000 bipartisan Religious Land Use Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and one violation to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The case has been assigned to Federal District Judge Michael P. Mills and Magistrate Judge Roy Percy, Youngwood said after the press conference, which was at Latimer Park in Horn Lake.

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