Organization intervened after Kennesaw initially said no

By Cady Schulman
cschulman@atljewishtimes.com

The rejection and subsequent approval of a special-use permit to allow a mosque inside the city of Kennesaw isn’t the first such issue in Georgia, but the Anti-Defamation League thinks council members initially voted out of fear of the unknown.

That is something the organization is working to fight.

“We have religious freedom in this country,” said Mark Moskowitz, the regional director of the ADL. “It’s not just for Christian and Jewish houses of worship. It’s for other houses of worship as well. We can’t pick and choose which ones are OK and which ones are not OK.”

The Kennesaw City Council voted 4-1 Dec. 1 to deny the application for the Suffa Dawat Center to locate in a 2,200-square-foot space in a shopping center on Jiles Road. On Dec. 15, the council reversed its decision. According to The Marietta Daily Journal, council members approached Mayor Mark Mathews individually after the city was threatened with a lawsuit under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

Despite the vote reversal, Atlanta lawyer Doug Dillard, who represents mosque leaders, filed a lawsuit at the end of December to challenge the initial vote as a preventive measure.

“The concern that I’ve got is that if, in the event the opposition chooses to file a lawsuit and the action on Dec. 15 is disqualified, then we go back to the Dec. 1 action, which is denial,” Dillard said. “Then we have to start all over.”

According to Kennesaw’s ordinance, mosque leaders would have to wait two years to refile the special-use permit if an opposition lawsuit toppled the Dec. 15 approval.

“We would be out of luck if those cards fell that way,” Dillard said.

Council member Cris Eaton-Welsh was the sole vote to approve the mosque Dec. 1, a move she said she had to make because of the First Amendment, which gives Americans freedom of religion.

“I realized people have a fundamental right to worship how they choose,” Eaton-Welsh said.

Before the vote, the councilwoman said, she met with ministers from various denominations to get their thoughts on a mosque in the area.

“We were fundamentally founded with freedom of religion,” Eaton-Welsh said. “If we don’t (stick to) that, we’re going to have problems.”

While she’s glad her fellow council members changed their votes, she said doing so likely confused the city’s residents.
“It’s a hard thing to be on the dais making decisions,” Eaton-Welsh said. The other council members are taking a lot of criticism for changing their minds, but “they really didn’t have a choice.”

Eaton-Welsh said that she receives several emails a day criticizing her decision, but the Jewish community has been incredibly supportive. One Jewish group “sent a very beautiful letter to me saying that they don’t agree with the (Muslim) religion, but they have a right to be there.”

When Moskowitz and other ADL officials heard that the City Council had denied the mosque’s permit, they decided it was time to get involved. The ADL sent letters to the council members and Mathews, urging them to reconsider.

“This is not the first time this has happened,” Moskowitz said. “This has happened all over the country and a few times in Georgia where people are trying to stop the building and expansion of mosques. They’re using the fear of Islam and the fear of something different.”

Kennesaw residents don’t need to be afraid of the mosque’s congregants preaching anti-American, anti-Jewish or pro-terrorist messages, Moskowitz said. Before defending the mosque, the ADL did due diligence on whether there were any red flags with the mosque or its potential members.

“We found nothing,” Moskowitz said. “The mosque has no history of being on Homeland Security or the FBI or the GBI’s radar screen. There’s nothing on record of them doing anything like that.”

Dillard said he doesn’t know the time frame for the mosque’s opening, but he did advise its leaders to move quickly because the permit grants them only two years to open the house of worship.

“The quicker they get going, the better off they’re going to be,” he said. “My advice to them was to get going as quick as they can. It’s not that complicated because it’s not that big.”