Religious freedom, zoning may clash again in Portland

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PORTLAND — The city could again find itself tangled in a question of religious freedom, after ruling that a Washington Avenue building does not meet zoning requirements to be a Muslim house of worship.

But the purpose of the building at 978 Washington Ave., which the city believes will be used for prayer gatherings, is less than clear.

The applicant, Sadri Shir of Cape Elizabeth, said he requested changing the former television repair shop into an “assembly hall,” not a mosque or house of worship. City officials, after meeting with Shir, decided it was going to be used for religious purposes.

“Based on his description,” Planning and Urban Development Director Penny Littell said, “we tried to be helpful to him and best advise him on his application.”

Littell said Shir told the city the planned purposes of the building include religious uses and prayer. Photographs filed at City Hall of the interior of 978 Washington Ave. show what Littell described as a prayer room, with rugs laid in a row and a small stand.

Shir, however, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that he only wants to turn the space into an assembly hall to be used for meetings and gatherings. The application submitted by Shir does request permission for an assembly hall. City staff changed it to a house of worship.

The rub is that assembly halls are not permitted in the zone where Shir’s property is located. Houses of worship are allowed, but with conditional use approval. And the Maine Civil Liberties Union said that if the city classifies the request as a house of worship application, then it becomes subject to federal protection under the Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act of 2000.

An April 13 letter to Shir from the city zoning administrator, Marge Schmuckel, instructed Shir that he would have 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 the conditional use.

“Religious land use is protected under federal law,” said Zach Heiden, legal director for the MCLU. Heiden also said that the definition of a house of worship is broad enough that the Washington Avenue building would qualify if, for example, it is merely a place of a gathering to talk about the Quran.

“I’m concerned with the city’s priorities of zoning laws over religious accommodations,” said Heiden, recalling the city’s decision last summer to bring Rabbi Moshe Wilansky before the Zoning Board because he held religious services in his Craigie Street home.

The board voted unanimously to overrule Schmuckel’s decision in that case, but not before the story attracted national attention and prompted hundreds of people to rally in the rabbi’s support on the steps of City Hall.

Littell said she thinks this case is different than the Wilansky situation.

“We’ve got to uphold our land use code,” she said. 

It is unclear whether Shir will appeal Schmuckel’s ruling. A friend of Shir’s, Richard Jordan, said he was filling out the forms for the appeal and would give them to Shir when he was done.  

Shir did not say whether he planned to actually file the papers. He has until May 13 to do so.

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or