It’s a fact that religious groups prefer to build houses of worship close to where people live, but in some suburban neighborhoods there are fierce arguments about whether they create problems with things like traffic, sewage, and water drainage. DuPage County may have a solution: keep meeting places, including religious ones, out of unincorporated residential areas altogether.
Proponents say the rules would be even-handed, but others suspect the restrictions target Muslims at a time when they're building more mosques there. And for many, that question has become a major undercurrent of the zoning debate: is it really about land use or is it about discrimination?
Dr. Zaher Sahloul of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago says, in recent months, Illinois’s Muslim population has been feeling great pressure. Some has been tied to recent national controversies,such as New York City’s Park51 development, that involve Islam. But some has also been because of issues closer to home. “Every mosque that we're trying to build in Illinois (is) having resistance,” Sahloul said at a recent press conference. “And usually the excuse is traffic, but we think that there is more than that.”
Sahloul is particularly worried about the proposal in DuPage County; recently, three separate mosques have hit roadblocks in their quests for proper zoning there. At roughly the same time, zoning changes were proposed that could potentially freeze all future mosques out of residential neighborhoods.
But this development doesn’t surprise longtime journalist and radio host Ray Hanania. “There have been problems with mosques all over,” he says. Hanania remembers fights in Palos Heights, North Brook, and, in 2004, one near his home in Orland Park. Hanania made a documentary about the Orland Park controversy. He taped hours of highly charged comments during public hearings, in which some residents likened their Muslim neighbors to terrorists.
Hanania believes the fears that prompt debates over mosques in Illinois still lie behind today’s controversies, but he says the way that people frame those debates has changed. “Today, you won't have 600 people say that Islam is an evil religion,” Hanania says. “They're going to say ‘you know what? This mosque is going to cause traffic congestion around where we're at.’”
But county officials say traffic, water drainage, and parking infrastructure really are the issues, not religion. They cite run-ins that they’ve had with other religious groups over zoning. One example is The Church of the Resurrection, which has been meeting in the auditorium at Glen Bard West High School in Glen Ellyn for Sunday services for nearly 20 years.
Church member Joe Clark says they hoped to move out of the high school last year, when the church identified a 21-acre residential plot in unincorporated DuPage County. “It's probably one of the last undeveloped pieces of property of that size anywhere in DuPage County,” says Clark, “and that's one of the reasons we had such an interest in it.”
But almost as soon as the church started its application before the DuPage County Zoning Board of Appeals to get permission to use the property as they wanted, they ran into trouble. The neighbors, in particular, were opposed. “Seemed like parking and traffic seemed to be the biggest concerns,” says Clark. “We kept looking for ways to make it work. We were going to make revisions on both roads at our expense, and it didn't seem to matter.” Ultimately, the church’s petition for zoning was denied.
At the time, there weren't many restrictions on religious groups that wanted to be in residential neighborhoods. But as the church was going through its zoning appeals process, Clark learned that the county was thinking about imposing new restrictions on groups like his. He says it would have required all new religious developments to have at least 5 acres of land if they wanted to build in a residential neighborhood, and to locate on a major state highway.
Clark mobilized other religious groups against the proposed changes, and says the pressure they applied to county officials succeeded when the county board voted down those changed. Clark said he thought the matter was over, but then he read about the most recent zoning proposal in the newspaper. “They scheduled the first hearing for these new proposals on August the 26th… and (I) started calling up the same coalition of folks to come together again,” says Clark.
Clark says he doesn’t feel like the county’s proposed ordinance targets Muslims. “Being of the Christian faith, we feel some of this restraint as well,” he says. “But because right now is a time when people of Islam are moving more into DuPage County, it may seem that way.”
When the Church of the Resurrection sought zoning, it got some local news coverage. But the proposed mosques in DuPage County are getting far more attention for the same issues, including from national news outlets.
DuPage County Board member Tony Michelassi admits the amendment may appear to target Muslims. But he says it needs to be put in its proper historical context. “If this ordinance had been introduced something like 30 years ago it would have been the Jewish community that would have been affected most by this,” says Michelassi, “because synagogues were just moving into this area around that time. Anything that's going to affect an institutional use is always going to affect the newest institutions first.”
Michelassi says the county had to do something after seeing several projects run into problems with sewage, water drainage, and traffic. While the proposal would ban them from residential areas, it would make it easier to locate in industrial and commercial zones that have proper infrastructure. And most important, says Michelassi, is the fact that the code would apply to both religious and non-religious groups, so there can't be any discrimination.
Whatever happens with the proposal, many county residents say their opposition to mosques in their neighborhoods has nothing to do with religion. Raymond and Jaqueline Sickiewicz in the suburb of West Chicago say they have nothing against Muslims. Their home abuts a 2-acre property that was bought by a Muslim couple, who now want to turn the property’s 2-story house it into an Islamic center. “It's residential,” says Jacqueline Sickiewicz. “Keep it residential.”
The couple say that even without permission to use the property as a place of worship, Muslims have been gathering at the house and blocking their driveway. They say if the sizeable fields around the house are paved over for parking lots, and lights are installed, they stand to lose value on their own home.
Many Muslims say that it's hard to know what's really in the hearts and minds of DuPage County officials, to know what prompted the zoning proposal. They want more light shed on whether this is really about land use, or about Islam. But at least one of the three mosques involved claims it has a clearer picture: The Irshad Learning Center has filed a federal lawsuit against the county board, claiming religious discrimination.