FREDERICK - Members of this city's Muslim community vowed yesterday to fight a decision, made by the Frederick county commissioners last week, to deny them access to sewer and water service for a mosque they hope to build on a 100-acre stretch of rural farmland.
After an emotional hearing that ended Friday at 1:30 a.m., the commissioners voted, 3-2, to deny the Islamic Society of Frederick sewer and water connections it needs to construct the house of worship on a plot south of Frederick. It would be the county's first mosque. Approximately 200 Muslim families now crowd into a house for worship.
Commissioners said the Islamic Society failed to meet the necessary criteria for gaining permission to tap into the county's water supply. Muslim leaders, speaking at a news conference yesterday, decried the decision as discriminatory and said they will begin meeting tonight to discuss their legal options.
"We're all devastated, we're all stressed out, it's very depressing and it's been a roller-coaster for two years," said Khalil Elshazly, the group's president, who added that the society has spent $80,000 in its efforts to get the mosque built.
"That is donations from hard-working people going down the drain fighting bureaucrats," he said. "Without a mosque, we can't learn about our religion. We can't teach children about our religion."
The society wants to build on property that is zoned for agricultural use and off-limits for development under Maryland's Smart Growth policies, meaning it needs a special exemption from the county to use sewer and water services.
Amended utility plan
But the group thought such a request would be routine because the commissioners amended the county's comprehensive sewer and water plan in 1996 to allow some groups to use the services on agricultural lands outside the established sewer and water area. That year, the commissioners extended such permission to a planned baseball camp on the same 100-acre site.
David Severn, the attorney representing the Islamic Society, said the group might take its case to the Maryland Department of the Environment because that agency approves comprehensive water and sewer plans from each county, as well as any amendments to the plans.
"They approved it on the books," Severn said of Frederick County's plan. "They should be involved."
But John Verrico, an MDE spokesman, said he did not think his agency has a legal say in the case.
"All we do is approve their plans," Verrico said. "How they implement it is up to them."
Legal appeal considered
Severn said the society is also considering filing an appeal with the Frederick County Circuit Court to overturn the commissioners' decision.
Representatives from the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations who attended the news conference yesterday said they have been following the Frederick case closely.
"I saw bias and discrimination in the proceedings," said Joshua Salaam, the organization's civil rights coordinator, who said that Muslim groups throughout the nation often face resistance when trying to build places to worship.
"It's because of stereotypes of Muslims, what they're about, what they'll bring to a community," he said, adding that "Muslims have high morals, and they educate their children."
Officials deny bias charge
John L. "Lennie" Thompson Jr., one of the commissioners who voted to deny the Islamic Society's request, denied allegations of bias.
"It's not an accurate criticism," he said yesterday. "The only issue before us was, `Do they qualify for public water and public sewer?'"
Thompson said that in 1996, the baseball camp backers met an important criterion, which was to show they could find alternative water and sewer service within three years. Thompson said the Islamic Society failed to meet that criterion.
"The answer would have been the same, no matter what the proposed use was," Thompson said.