With some residents raising concerns about the cultural influence of a , city officials are grappling with how to handle a public dialogue that Mayor Steven Ponto said should focus on the building itself rather than the religion.
"We’re really reviewing a building; we’re not reviewing a religion," Ponto said. "I don’t think anyone wants a government to start reviewing a religion."
City officials must consider the legal implications of allowing religious concerns into the conversation, as they decide whether to grant the Islamic Society of Milwaukee a conditional-use permit for their proposal. Federal laws such as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act prohibit zoning decisions that limit the free exercise of religion.
"I think the way that federal law and the federal constitution apply is that there is freedom of religion, and we respect that," Ponto said. "The focus of our attention should be on the building issues related to sewers, stormwater and traffic."
Looking for clear legal standards, Alderman Scott Berg said the city is conferring with Gregg Gunta, an attorney who has represented several other cities in federal civil rights cases.
Opposition Surfaces on Several Fronts
The Islamic Society wants to build the mosque at 16650 and 16730 W. Pheasant Dr., a short distance northeast of the Calhoun Road-North Avenue intersection. The group hopes to eventually expand the facility to serve about 350 congregants.
While many residents have fears about the mosque bringing religious extremists and even ties to terrorism, some opponents are keeping their public criticism to building issues, and particularly traffic, to build a stronger case against the proposal.
"A mosque is a Trojan Horse in a community. Muslims have not come to integrate but to dominate."
Thus even if the city has legal guidance to limit areas of consideration, Berg said it could be hard to judge true public opinion if residents with religious concerns voice their disapproval under the guise of traffic concerns.
"The really difficult thing is when someone comes up and says, 'I think the mosque will generate too much traffic (wink-wink, nudge-nudge),'" Berg said. "That’s the judgment we will have to make."
At the same time, many residents have not backed off the religious front.
Earlier this month, resident Dave Glasgow petitioned aldermen by email to reject the mosque proposal on religious grounds.
"As a resident of Brookfield since 1970, I am greatly troubled by this development and am respectfully asking that you reject the proposal on the grounds that the ideology of Islam is incompatible with western culture, our Judeo-Christian foundation, and universally accepted human values of freedom, liberty, and justice," Glasgow wrote.
"A mosque is a Trojan Horse in a community," Glasgow continued. "Muslims have not come to integrate but to dominate."
On Saturday, VCY America, which operates Christian radio programming, is holding a rally at the Waukesha County Expo Center titled, "The Growing Threat of Islam." Berg said the organization invited all Brookfield aldermen to the event, with reserved front row seats for them, though it's unclear whether the group will specifically address the Brookfield mosque proposal.
"I have no intention of going there because I believe their points are probably not true; and even if they are true, they are not relevant," Berg said.
More Meetings on Tap
The city will hold a public information meeting on the proposed mosque May 2 at 6:30 p.m. in the courtroom of the at 2100 N. Calhoun Rd. Officials will be available to answer questions and will give a presentation at 7 p.m.
A public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for May 7, with the time and location to be announced.
"We get an issue of that magnitude once every 10 years," Berg said. "This is just going to be a lightening rod."