A federal court has approved a consent decree that will allow developers to construct the Abraham Church of God and Cemetery, the first Islamic mosque in the city of Horn Lake in DeSoto County, Mississippi, over the initial objections of local officials.
Michael P. Mills, a federal judge on senior status with the United States District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi in Oxford, approved the consent decree Jan. 3 between the city and mosque developers.
Although noise and traffic were cited in local officials’ opposition to mosque construction, mosque developers alleged anti-Muslim discrimination played a prominent role in the city’s initial denial of the permits necessary to proceed with construction.
Property has already been acquired for Abraham House of God and Cemetery, Inc., according to a complaint filed Nov. 3 , 2021, by the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi in association with the New York City law firm of Simpson, Thatcher and Bartlett on behalf of mosque developers Riyadh Elkhayyat and Maher Abuirshaid.
The complaint stated there are 13 churches in the city of Horn Lake, but followers of the Muslim faith must travel to Memphis for worship opportunities. The ACLU filing further stated that local officials “did not work very hard to hide the true reason they denied approval for the project” and estimated that 15–20 Muslim families reside in DeSoto County.
“The city’s decision was clearly motivated by anti-Muslim bigotry,” said Josh Tom, ACLU of Mississippi legal director. “People of every faith should have a safe place to practice their religion, and we intend to make sure that’s the case in Horn Lake and DeSoto County,” according to a news release provided by the ACLU after the complaint was filed.
The ACLU issued a Jan. 4 press release that stated, “Under the consent decree, entered last night by the court, Horn Lake officials must approve the mosque’s site plan, which they previously rejected, and act quickly in the future to address any other permitting and building-related matters.
“The order also provides that the defendants will pay plaintiffs $25,000 for expenses incurred in appealing the denial of the mosque-site application and pay for plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees and costs associated with the federal lawsuit. The federal district court will have continuing jurisdiction over the action for a period of five years to facilitate the enforcement of the consent decree.”
An internet search indicates there are presently 20 mosques or centers in Mississippi, stretching from Oxford in the north to Gulfport and Biloxi on the Gulf Coast. The Horn Lake mosque will be the northernmost in the state.
Southern Baptist perspectives
During the past several years, Southern Baptists have grappled with the building of mosques throughout the United States.
In July 2015, when a mosque and Muslim training center were proposed to be built in Farmersville, Texas, Bart Barber, pastor of First Baptist Church there, wrote an online opinion article for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
Barber, who supported the building of the mosque, wrote that Christians “can be thankful when God brings those lost people to our doorsteps. We just broadened the opportunity for how many of our local Christians can participate in cross-cultural evangelism!” Christians, he said, need to ask themselves, “What are the best things I can be doing to pave the way for me to share the gospel with Muslims [where I live]?”
The issue of religious freedom related to building a mosque in New Jersey boiled over at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in St. Louis in 2016.
At that time the ERLC and the International Mission Board had joined 16 other groups in filing an amicus brief supporting a Muslim seeking to build a mosque in New Jersey. The brief’s introduction read, “A Muslim mosque cannot be subjected to a different land-use approval process than a Christian church simply because local protesters oppose the mosque.”
Prior to the annual meeting, Gerald Harris, then-editor of The Christian Index, also wrote an opinion piece on the issue. “While Muslims around the world and in our own country are shouting ‘Death to America,’ should we be defending their rights to build mosques, which often promote Sharia law and become training grounds for radicalizing Muslims?” Harris asked.
At the 2016 annual meeting, two messengers proposed motions related to religious liberty for Muslims to build mosques in America. One motion called for the firing of all SBC officials who support the building of mosques as well as a motion calling on the ERLC to withdraw its amicus brief. Both motions failed because their application would have exceeded the authority of the SBC and its messengers.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Margaret Colson wrote this story, with reporting from William Perkins at The Baptist Record.