Portland, MCLU reach agreement on rules for small religious gatherings

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PORTLAND — Followers of a small mosque and Islamic center at 978 Washington Ave. will be allowed to continue meeting after a lawsuit filed by the Maine Civil Liberties Union against the city was settled last week.

As a result, it will be easier for all small religious groups to meet, something the MCLU maintains is protected under the state and U.S. constitutions.

The MCLU brought the case against the city in 2009 after the group of about a dozen people who met regularly in an old television repair shop was denied a zoning exception for parking and land use rules by the Zoning Board of Appeals. The small building where the group has been meeting is owned by Sadri Shir, one of the participants in the Muslim religious services.

The city and MCLU were able to reach an agreement without taking the case to trial.

“Two things were changed: The size of the lot you needed and parking requirements,” MCLU Legal Director Zachary Heiden said.

The changes to the city’s land use rules now rely on a tiered system that designates small, medium and large religious gathering sites, each with its own lot size and parking requirements.

“It’s based on the square footage of the religious assembly building,” Heiden said.

Previously, all religious groups were required to have one-acre lots for gathering spaces; now, small groups need only a quarter-acre lot.

“We said to the city, ‘they have a right to use their own property for religious purposes,'” Heiden said.

The MCLU also represented a similar case in 2008, when Rabbi Moshe Wilansky was told he could not hold religious gatherings in his Craigie Street home because it was in a residential zone. The case was overturned by the Zoning Board of Appeals, but not before it received national attention.

“We think this sets a precedent,” MCLU Executive Director Shenna Bellows said. “This requires towns and cities to be as accommodating as possible for these kinds of small religious groups.”

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net

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