LEXINGTON, Neb. – Despite the Lexington City Council’s unanimous vote Tuesday to deny the Islamic Center of Lexington’s application to expand in their location at 401. N. Grant, the issue is likely far from concluded.
The council decided that an expanded Islamic Center would be detrimental to the long-term development that area of downtown. The Islamic Center has occupied a portion of the building for eight years. The application is to expand into the rest of the building, which was formerly home to Longhorn Laundry before it went out of business.
Prior to the vote, a public hearing was held. Center attorney Claude Berreckman Jr. of Cozad told the council he believes the 2014 overhaul of city zoning ordinances is illegal on the grounds of religious discrimination and threatened a federal investigation.
Berreckman cited the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act as the basis for his claim, and told the council he’d spoken with a special counsel for Religious Discrimination in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.
“I spoke with Eric Treene with the Department of Justice, and he agreed with all the things I’ve said. You’ll have to take my word for that,” Berreckman said. “You can take his word for it in a couple of weeks when he starts his investigation.”
The Lexington Clipper-Herald contacted Treene for comment. He said he is unable to talk to the press and referred the paper to the office that handles media issues. The Clipper’s submitted a request for comment but has not heard back at this time.
Berreckman said he believes the City of Lexington is hiding behind zoning ordinances in order to keep churches out of commercial districts. “The city is using parking as an excuse to discriminate against a religious group that wants to practice in a place they’ve been for eight years,” he said.
The city adopted amended zoning rules earlier in December that made a number of uses in a C-2 zone, including meeting halls and social clubs, conditional uses instead of permitted uses. Churches, meanwhile, have always been considered a conditional use under the 2014 zoning regulations. Berreckman said the city making the changes earlier this month is tantamount to admitting that the 2014 zoning regulations are discriminatory.
After making his comments, Berreckman departed to attend a Cozad basketball game.
City officials, including council members and City Manager Joe Pepplitsch, were adamant throughout the meeting that this is a zoning matter and not a religious one.
It was further revealed that the Islamic Center’s members have already been occupying the contested portion of the building since March, without the city’s knowledge or consent.
“We have been advised by legal counsel that we have a legal right to be in that building, and we are going to pursue that to the fullest extent of the law,” said Naji Abdi, who has been representing the Islamic Center in its dealings with the city.
The revelation that Center members are already occupying the contested space prompted Pepplitsch to say, “You are violating all sorts of codes.”
Pastor Rex Adams with Calvary Assembly of God noted that it is not just the Islamic Center that these rules apply to. “We are in the same boat. We’ve thought about expanding, but we don’t have the off-the-street parking to accommodate it,” Adams said. “These rules are applied across the board, it’s not being unfair to one group or another.”
Resident Bonnie Albright said she was concerned about the impact the expanded mosque would have on the future sale of neighboring Tep’s Bar and Grill, and said she thought it would have a negative impact on the future of downtown Lexington. “The parking lots by the Islamic Center are paid for by tax dollars, and you don’t get tax dollars from empty businesses,” Albright said. “This town was founded by cowboys, and they wanted it to be an area of commerce.”
There was much discussion of parking issues, even though city officials said parking was a secondary concern to how an expanded mosque would impact the future development of commerce in the downtown area. Multiple Center members noted that most people who attend prayer at the center either walk or carpool, and said parking has never been an issue in the eight years the Islamic Center has occupied the building.
Pepplitsch said the parking requirements are a matter of ordinances, and the parking requirements are based on the total potential occupancy of a building, not the number of occupants that are expected to use the building. City officials said the Islamic Center would require 139 privately owned, off-the-street parking stalls.
“Just so you have some perspective, if you combined all three city lots that are by the Islamic Center, you wouldn’t have 139 parking spots,” said Bill Brecks, City Development Director.
One member of the Center said they were willing to pay for metered parking, if that was the issue.
City officials said that the council has to make a decision based on long-term planning, not what is currently in the building. “This is responsible planning,” Brecks said. “It’s about promoting growth downtown, and you have to think 20 years down the road, not six months.”
The hearing’s final speaker, resident Rod Zeigler, said he believes that this issue has been twisted into an “anti-Islamic brouhaha.”
“I urge the city council not to be bullied by that,” Zeigler said. “I encourage them also not to be bullied by the threat of getting the Department of Justice involved.”
Council member Linda Miller said she wants to see the Islamic Center grow and expand, but there is no potential for growth in the downtown location.
“I appreciate what has been said tonight. It’s my wish that the Islamic Center grows, because that means Lexington is growing,” she said. Miller continued that the Center’s building may not be suitable for them as they grow, and that having a mosque downtown doesn’t suit the city’s plans for their core commercial area.
Her sentiments were echoed by fellow council members Jeremy Roberts and John Salem.
“I think this would be a big mistake,” Salem said.
“With this space, there is no room for future growth,” Roberts added.
Following the vote, Mayor John Fagot told Center members it is his hope going forward that the two sides can work together to find a location where the Center can expand and grow.
While a contentious TV report about this issue was never explicitly mentioned, several speakers on behalf of the Islamic Center made a point of noting that they enjoy a good relationship with Fagot, and that the City of Lexington has made them feel welcome.
Faisa Hagi-Mohamed said, “The mayor has welcomed us and has done tremendous things for us. We all live here together. We feel welcomed here.”
Naji Abdi said the community’s diversity makes it unique, and having a mosque in downtown Lexington makes that diversity visible.
“We are just one family,” Abdi said. “I am of Lexington. That’s what I say when people ask me where I’m from. I say, ‘I’m from Lexington.’”
Hagi-Mohamed spoke of the economic boon that the Islamic Center, and Muslim community in general, represents. She said that people from other communities move to Lexington because there is a mosque here, and those people contribute to the local economy. “As much as the community has done for us, I think it’s fair to look at the positives we bring,” she said.