Lawsuit against Des Plaines over Islamic center headed to trial

Justice Department alleges Des Plaines violated group's rights when it rejected Islamic center plan

A U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit against Des Plaines claiming the city unfairly denied a Muslim group from opening a place of worship will go to trial.

U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly plans Wednesday to set a trial date in the dispute over whether city officials violated the religious rights of the Society of American Bosnians and Herzegovinians, a group including immigrants who fled war-torn Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The group wanted to establish the American Islamic Center in a building on the southeast side of Des Plaines.

The Justice Department sued the city in September 2015, arguing that officials imposed parking standards and other zoning criteria not used for non-Islamic groups. Des Plaines officials say the city was within its right to reject the group's zoning request and did not violate state and federal religious freedom laws. The city has said it welcomes people of all faiths.

The case began when members of the group sought a permanent place of worship called the American Islamic Center in a one-story building on the light-industrial property at 1645 Birchwood Ave. The group planned to use the building for a prayer hall and community center.

In July 2013, aldermen voted 5-3 to deny the group's request to zone the property for a place of worship, citing safety concerns for children in the industrial area and other potential traffic problems. The Justice Department and Islamic center argued that the city previously approved zoning changes to institutional use from industrial.

Kennelly ruled that the center may be eligible for compensatory damages under the state and U.S. constitutions, depending on the outcome of the trial. But the group would not receive punitive damages because the five aldermen who voted to deny the Islamic center's request are no longer named in the lawsuit.

The Justice Department's lawsuit called for the city to grant approval of the worship center. But the building was sold to a developer in September 2015, and the city later approved property tax incentives for the new owner. Meanwhile, the group found a place to worship in a former Lutheran church in Franklin Park.

The hearing to set a trial date will start at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday in Chicago.

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