Portland, MCLU reach temporary agreement for mosque

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PORTLAND — City officials will temporarily allow a group of Afghani Muslims to use a former television repair shop on Washington Avenue for prayer services.

The compromise between city officials and the Maine Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the Portland Masjid and Islamic Center, was reached Monday. The MCLU on Aug. 13 filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming the city was violating the religious rights of the Portland Masjid and Islamic Center by denying them the right to gather and pray at 978 Washington Ave.

The agreement between the city and the group secures a place of worship for the Afghani Muslim community for the holy month of Ramadan, which begins Friday, Aug. 21 and prayer and religious gatherings will be allowed there by the city while the lawsuit is pending.

The city zoning administrator in an April 13 letter told building owner Sadri Shir she needed to go through the Zoning Board of Appeals for parking and lot size exceptions to zoning rules, and then to the Planning Board to request conditional use approval for a house of worship.

Shir appealed to the Zoning Board in June, but the appeal was denied. 

The MCLU contends that the city is violating the Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act of 2000, which gives houses of worship federal protection.

“We are hoping the city of Portland will amend its laws to have what we view as an appropriate respect for religious rights,” said Zach Heiden, the attorney for the MCLU. When asked if the MCLU and its client planned to sit down with the city and work on the issue, Heiden responded that “the city has a lawsuit now hanging over it. If they can address the problems, the lawsuit would become moot.”

City Spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said Monday the city would like to work with the MCLU and masjid members to review city zoning and see if there are opportunities to amend current restrictions.

“Certainly going to court is not our preference,” she said.

City attorney Gary Wood in a letter to Heiden Aug. 14 expressed surprise at the lawsuit, saying city officials had been trying to work with the Shirs and MCLU.

The city also says the Shirs paved a parking lot at 978 Washington Ave. without permission from the city, and the paving has resulted in runoff water flooding neighboring properties. City regulations require a site plan to be filed for such projects. As part of the agreement to allow religious services while the lawsuit is pending, the Shirs need to file a site plan.

Heiden said the Shirs have an engineer working with them on a revised site plan for the property.

The MCLU also represented Rabbi Moshe Wilansky in a religious land use issue last summer. The city ordered Wilansky to stop using his home for religious services, because it was in a residential zone. The city zoning administrator’s decision was ultimately overturned by the Zoning Board of Appeals, but not before the case garnered national attention.

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or kbucklin@theforecaster.net