Defending the Faithful
Since 2007 when the South Valley Islamic Conference SVIC bought the land in unincorporated San Martin, the project, called Cordoba Center, has been tied up in red tape. Because cemetery proposals often involve groundwater issues, the approval process was difficult. But in August 2012, the Santa Clara County Planning Commission finally gave the project a green light – with significant restrictions: Rather than allowing the mosque to welcome all comers, the county limited the number who could gather there to 80 people with allowances for up to 150 for one-day special events. The panel also cut back the scope of the facilities to be built at the site, from 10,000 square feet to about 7,800 square feet.The SVIC and its supporters maintain that these limitations arbitrarily restrict the congregations freedom of religion. “Catholics dont have those levels of restrictions on them,” noted County Supervisor Dave Cortese.
For those who most strongly oppose the project, however, the restrictions didnt go far enough.Both the SVIC and local residents appealed the Planning Commissions decision but got nowhere. Then a newly formed group calling itself the Peoples Coalition for Government Accountability filed a lawsuit under the California Environmental Quality Act CEQA, claiming that the congregation should have been required to complete an environmental impact report EIR before the project was allowed to proceed. Peoples Coalition for Govt Accountability v. Cnty. of Santa Clara, No. 1-12-CV-236397 Santa Clara Super. Ct. filed Nov. 20, 2012. After that, the Religious Liberty Clinic stepped in.Kerrel Murray, a Stanford law student who worked on the case, says the environmental challenge to the Cordoba Center is a pretext. CEQA is often used to derail the construction of religiously oriented projects, he says, and the clinic wants to ensure that doesnt happen in San Martin.
But the attorney for the plaintiffs group, Rachel Mansfield-Howlett, flatly denies that anti-Muslim sentiment is driving the opposition. The lawsuit, she says, is solely about environmental concerns. And under CEQA, Mansfield-Howlett says, her clients have an easy burden of proof, needing only to show that the center will have some kind of an environmental impact in order to halt the project until an EIR is prepared.Are the environmental concerns genuine? County Supervisor Cortese allows that some of the opposition is legitimate, but he adds that there has also been a strong undertone of racial bigotry, NIMBYism, and “disrespect for one of the worlds major religions.” This was evident, he recalls, at a Board of Supervisors meeting when one speaker got up and linked the Cordoba Center with the same radical Islamic ideologies that led to the 9/11 terrorist attacks: “It is just astounding that you are even considering this project,” the man said. Also, at one point, a local group called the Gilroy-Morgan Hill Patriots invited the proprietor of a website called Islamthreat.com to talk about the dangers posed by Islam.
In July the SVIC sent a letter to the county board indicating it was abandoning the land use entitlements granted to it in October 2012, but without waiving any rights relating to future development of the property. As a consequence, the CEQA lawsuit may now be moot. Sonne stresses, though, that the congregation is as committed as ever to seeing the Cordoba Center built, and he promises that his clinic will stand by its client “every step of the way.”Which is of at least some comfort to SVIC spokesman Hamdy Abbass. “All we want is to establish our place of worship like anyone else,” he says. “Hopefully, with the help of Stanford, we can.
“Sonne and his students will certainly do their best. But win or lose, Sonne observes that learning to express the viewpoints of a misunderstood minority to a skeptical, if not hostile, audience is an invaluable experience. “Handling these types of cases prepares the students for their futures,” he says, “no matter what they do.”
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