The Trump Administration and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) became unlikely allies in defending the Islamic Center of Culpeper's right to build a mosque.
In April of 2016, Culpeper County’s Board of Supervisors voted 4-3 to deny a “pump and haul” sewage permit to the Islamic Center of Culpeper (ICC). Without this permit, it became impossible for the ICC’s mosque’s construction project to move forward.
Culpeper County, located 70 miles southwest of Washington DC, has argued that the permit denial was purely a land-use issue. Supervisor Bill Chase is the one who motioned to deny the mosque its permit and rejects any religious discrimination claim as “bull----.”
Nevertheless, the Obama administration filed a discrimination lawsuit in December against Culpeper County for refusing the mosque’s permit. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA)
allows both private parties and the Federal government to sue if they believe local governments are manipulating land-use statutes in order to discriminate on the basis of religion. The Islamic Center of Culpeper had filed its own civil lawsuit in case the Trump administration decided to reverse course.
The ACLU has accused President Trump of harboring anti-Muslim bias. They were surprised to learn this month that the Trump administration is still moving forward with the Culpeper RLUIPA case. “We were curious as to what would happen,” admitted Leslie Mehta, Legal Director for the ACLU’s Virginia Chapter.
"Many Culpeper County residents expressed religious animus in opposing the ICC's request for the permit," the Department of Justice (DOJ) wrote in a February memo. "The public's religious animus may be imputed to the Board."
The DOJ’s legal argument is that even if the Board of Supervisors did not have discriminatory intent, such animus was clearly vocalized by the board’s constituents during the public comment period. Justice Department lawyers are arguing that the prospect of electoral defeat could have caused the county’s Board of Supervisors to violate the RLUIPA.
The DOJ’s Civil Rights Division has a long history of non-partisanship when it comes to enforcing religious discrimination laws. Justice Department Spokesperson Nicole Navas issued a statement saying that the Department “continues to enforce RLUIPA vigorously as they have since its enactment in September 2000.”
During the first month of Trump’s Presidency, the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division was able to reach a settlement with the city of Sterling Heights, Michigan to resume mosque construction on city property.