Since the Islamic Center of Culpeper was founded in northern Virginia in 2011, worshippers met for daily prayers and holidays at a cramped, ill-equipped house located on the site of a used car dealership.
After a five-year effort to find a permanent site that was economical and large enough to house its congregants, the ICC applied for a sanitation permit to begin construction on a mosque on a stretch of land on Rixeyville Road. But in April, after receiving a flood of complaints from residents, county supervisors voted to block the permit, effectively blocking construction of the building.
According to a lawsuit the U.S. Justice Department filed Monday in federal court in Virginia, that decision represented a discriminatory effort on the part of Culpeper County to keep Muslim worshippers from having a permanent place to gather and to pray.
“The Constitution and federal law specifically protect the freedom of religious communities to establish houses of worship,” Vanita Gupta, head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, said in a statement. “The Justice Department will continue to work tirelessly to protect every person’s right to assemble for religious exercise.”
In a statement sent late Tuesday to TPM, Culpeper County attorney Bobbi Jo Alexis called the suit “ill-informed and meritless” and said that the county would “vigorously” defend its actions.
“The issue regarding a permit for the permanent pump and haul of excrement is a health issue—not a religious one,” Alexis wrote. “There presently is no bar to the Islamic Center of Culpeper using its property for religious gathering.”
At least one of the members of the county board of supervisors who rejected the ICC’s permit also insisted the decision was not discriminatory.
“I’m very surprised that they sued,” William Chase Jr., a board member representing the Stevensburg District, told TPM in a Tuesday phone call. “I don’t know why in the world they did because there’s certainly nothing religious involved in this. It’s simply did they meet the requirements for our policy on ‘pump and haul’ and the answer is no.”
Virginia state law requires the “pump and haul” permit Chase mentioned for building sites that lack the soil quality to handle a traditional septic system. The lot the ICC purchased is one such site, and in order to construct bathrooms for the mosque, the ICC would need approval from the board to be added to the county’s “pump and haul” permit. A sewage tank would be built on the site and periodically pumped and removed by a truck to a treatment facility.
According to the DOJ complaint, Culpeper County’s seven-person board of supervisors has granted 26 requests for “pump and haul” permits since 1992, including nine requests from churches—yet they rejected the ICC’s.
The saga laid out in the complaint started in February, after ICC Director Mohammad Nawabe paid a $250 processing fee and submitted an application to be added to the permit. The suit states that shortly after the application was filed, local Republican activist Kurt Christensen sent an email to the county administration, members of the board and media outlets asking for residents to receive “a detailed briefing pronto.”
“I understand the Islamic Center of Culpeper wishes to rehabilitate the existing home and use it on a weekly basis as a place of prayer,” Christensen wrote, as quoted in the complaint. “Hmmmmmmmm.”
Christensen went on to request that discussion of the ICC’s permit be pulled from a scheduled March 1 board meeting. Local officials complied, announcing at the meeting that more time was needed to review the ICC’s contract and voting to table discussion until the board’s April meeting. The DOJ noted in the complaint that previous permit requests had been discussed without delay.
Local outcry escalated in the weeks after that initial meeting, fueled by the email from Christensen, whose LinkedIn profile says he operates a tree farm in Culpeper County. He has gone to bat before the board before, fighting last year to keep a Confederate battle flag displayed in Culpeper County’s Lenn Park.
The complaint states the county “received numerous emails and phone calls from constituents opposing ICC’s pump and haul application. Much of the opposition contained comments that disparaged Muslims and made references to terrorism and the 9/11 attacks.”
The Culpeper Star-Exponent reported that a resident hung a banner on their house reading “No Islamic Center” in large black letters.
Board Chairwoman Alexa Fritz wrote in an email to the county administrator that “the scrutiny is unfair” and that she hoped to clarify constituents’ questions at the top of the April meeting to assuage their concerns about the Islamic center.
This didn’t quite work out. Chase, the board member who spoke to TPM on Tuesday, said that at the April meeting “people stood up and said that they were against it because they just didn’t want the mosque in their neighborhood or in the county.”
The complaint said Chase himself introduced a motion to deny the ICC’s permit request that was ultimately approved in a 4 to 3 vote, prompting cheers from the audience.
Chase said over the phone that his decision was based only on “policy and past regulations,” arguing that pump and haul requests are granted only on an emergency basis and not for permanent structures.
Yet according the DOJ complaint contends “The Board previously approved requests for pump and haul operations where the applicant presented circumstances that were similar, if not identical to the ICC’s, including circumstances where an applicant did not yet own the property and in which there was not an existing structure.”
Representatives for ICC did not immediately respond Tuesday to TPM’s request for comment.
Read the full DOJ complaint below:
This post has been updated to include comment from the Culpeper County attorney’s office.