Des Plaines council to vote on settling Muslim bias suit

The U.S. Justice Department and Des Plaines have reached a tentative settlement agreement in a lawsuit claiming the city unfairly denied a Muslim group from opening a place of worship.

The agreement would require city employees and city council members to undergo training and report compliance. The discrimination lawsuit initially was filed by the Society of American Bosnians and Herzegovinians, a group including immigrants who fled war-torn Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

The city released terms of the agreement in a Friday afternoon addition to the city council meeting agenda for Monday, when aldermen will vote whether to accept the deal. A federal judge restricted disclosure of the monetary settlement with the religious group until after the vote.

In 2014, the group wanted to establish the American Islamic Center in a building on the southeast side of Des Plaines, but aldermen denied the group's zoning request for 1645 Birchwood Ave.

In 2015, the Justice Department joined the group's lawsuit against the city, arguing that officials imposed parking standards and other requirements not used for non-Muslim groups.

"It clearly shows what they did here was use a pretext of traffic and parking requirements to deny an Islamic organization - a religious organization - a right to get a zoning variance, which was in keeping with the master plan of the town," Tony Peraica, the attorney represented the religious group, said Friday.

City Manager Mike Bartholomew and Mayor Matt Bogusz did not immediately return phone calls Friday afternoon.

Under the settlement agreement, city employees and city council members would be required to take training on the federal religious land use laws. The city also would be required to post information about the lawsuit settlement on its website and post signage at city hall stating the city does not impose a substantial burden on the exercise of religion.

The city would not accept liability or wrongdoing in the agreement, and the Justice Department would not acknowledge weakness in its case.

According to the settlement, "the parties agree that this agreement is in the public interest because it promotes effective, nondiscriminatory treatment of religious land use applications in the city, and avoids the diversion of resources to adversarial litigation."

The suit called for the city to grant approval of the 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.

"These are men and women who fled Bosnia during the civil war over there and are today American as anyone," Peraica said. "All they wanted to do was practice their religion and educate their children."

The city council meeting is 7 p.m. Monday at 1420 Miner St. in Des Plaines.

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