The Los Angeles office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and a civil rights law firm have filed a joint complaint against the city of Lomita for denying the Islamic Center of South Bay’s application to build a new mosque.
The federal complaint, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in downtown Los Angeles, contends that the city is discriminating against the center and that there is no evidence to back up neighbors’ concerns about increased traffic.
“This is a last resort for the center under federal law,” said attorney Anne Richardson. “We are seeking injunctive relief, and we’re asking the city to reverse its denial of the application and allow the mosque to move forward with its plans.”
In March 2010, the Lomita City Council rejected a plan for a new worship center, citing neighbors’ concerns and the increased traffic that would be generated. The 4-0 vote occurred despite a study from city staff that concluded that the project would improve parking and traffic flow to adjacent streets.
“When you read the [Planning Commission’s] staff report, the recommended approval by the technical arm of the city, they found that this renovation project would improve the flow of traffic and parking,” said Reem Salahi, an attorney with the firm of Hadsell Stormer Kenny Richardson & Renick, which filed the complaint.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice began investigating whether the city discriminated against the center when the City Council denied an application to build the new mosque.
Lomita City Atty. Christi Hogin said she has not seen the lawsuit. “I’ve been blindsided by this,” she said. “This seems to be a disservice to their cause.”
Hogin said that she has been working with the mosque’s architect and that they are close to a compromise on the new design. She said the mosque is facing the same frustration that developers go through during the zoning process, but not discrimination.
“It was one precise plan that was turned down, that was it. It’s not unusual to go back to the drawing board,” Hogin said. “The doors have not been closed, and all the while the Islamic Center of the South Bay has been able to operate and function in the community.”
Supporters of the mosque also allege that the city violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The law says that a land-use decision can be overturned if it discriminates against a religious institution or places a substantial burden on exercising faith.
One of the burdens of not having a new mosque is that space limitations force some worship services and other events to be held outside in a covered parking area, said Ameena Qazi, a staff attorney with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, “and anyone living in the South Bay knows it gets cold and windy here.”
Amy Hossain, one of about 150 to 200 members of the center, said tradition requires that everyone wash their feet before entering the mosque. But the building where the women wash sits a short distance away. “You’re washing your feet and yet you have to walk so far,” Hossain said.
Additionally, members say the prayer space is not big enough to accommodate worshipers without crowding.
“This place was not originally built to be used as a mosque,” said Amin Momand, a member of the center’s board.
The Lomita Muslim community purchased its original building on Walnut Street near Pacific Coast Highway in 1985 and converted it into a worship center. Over the years the group has bought adjacent buildings to be used for prayer and community services.
The project would have demolished the eight buildings and replaced them with a two-story structure, members of the mosque say.
“It looks like a refugee camp sprawled out” on an acre an a half, Salahi said. “The buildings are 80 years old, and they need to be spruced up quite a bit."