Kyle Wingfield

Political commentary and opinion from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's conservative blogger

Kennesaw mosque decision shows religious liberty requires eternal vigilance

For about 12 months spanning this year and last, I led a real-estate search for my church. It's a difficult task, finding property to fit the size and budget of a smallish religious group. It's more difficult when one has to consider the additional restrictions imposed by city and county zoning ordinances.

So I can only imagine the further degree of difficulty to find a place to meet and pray when one is looking for property to house not a church but a mosque -- and other, unwritten barriers arise. The Suffah Dawaad congregation, whose application for a land-use permit was denied this week by the Kennesaw City Council, has my sympathy. I hope it will also have its victorious day in court if and when that time comes.

This is the reason religious liberty is safeguarded in the Constitution and in more recent laws: not to protect ubiquitous faiths practiced and accepted by many, but to protect those which are met with suspicion and opposition. It's the reason this country exists as it was conceived by the Founders.

Many of the opponents quoted in news reports leading up to the council's decision -- not all of whom, note, actually lived in Kennesaw -- expressed fears about having Muslims worshipping near them. To them, I'd say familiarity doesn't have to breed contempt. It can also yield understanding. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer; nearby residents might prejudge the Suffah Dawaad congregants as one or the other, but in neither case does the old adage suggest keeping them at a distance.

Other opponents pointed out there were other mosques and Islamic prayer halls not too far away. (That objection doesn't exactly jibe with the first one. And I won't bother addressing the complaints about parking, traffic and zoning categories, all of which have been pretty thoroughly debunked by others.) I would hazard a guess that proximity of other churches has not been successfully employed as an argument against a new church.

It seems clear the application was denied because the applicants were Muslims. In this country, that's not a good reason.

If the congregation does indeed sue the city, it can rely on the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. That 2000 law requires courts to apply a strict scrutiny legal test when evaluating zoning laws and rulings, among other things. It enhances the religious freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment by ensuring any substantial burden on religious rights that arises in land-use cases meets a "compelling government interest" and is the "least restrictive means" of doing so.

But if these Muslims -- or any other religious group or individual in Georgia -- were to face a substantial burden on their religious freedom due to a different local or state government action not related to land use, they would have much less assurance. That's because Georgia is in the minority of states that does not have a broader Religious Freedom Restoration Act which mirrors the federal law of that name passed by Congress in 1993.

By rights, the First Amendment ought to suffice. But two centuries of court decisions show us that doesn't always happen -- at least, not to the extent most Americans probably think it should. The federal RFRA stiffens the constitutional protections for religious liberty when the federal government is involved. It's clear our local and state governments could use that kind of reinforcement, too.

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About the Author

Kyle Wingfield joined the AJC in 2009. He is a native of Dalton and a graduate of the University of Georgia.