Following a March 22 hearing in U.S. District Court, the County of Culpeper and the U.S. Department of Justice agreed to mediation in the suit the DOJ filed alleging county discrimination against the Islamic Center of Culpeper when it requested a sewage permit for a mosque that was normally granted to churches.
The Islamic Center, which filed its own suit against Culpeper County, will join in the April 6 settlement conference that will be heard by U.S. Magistrate Judge Joel Hoppe in Harrisonburg.
‘Naked public animus’: Judge Moon questions Culpeper mosque permit denial
U.S. District Court Judge Norman Moon gave hints Wednesday that he may green-light a trial for the U.S. Department of Justice’s discrimination case against Culpeper County– which has been accused of illegally denying a sewage permit for a planned mosque after years of routinely approving permits for churches.
“Things were going along smoothly until somebody raised a question,” said Moon.
However, the Northern Virginia attorney representing Culpeper County at the March 22 motions hearing in Charlottesville fired back at the bench.
“What seems to have triggered this litigation were negative comments out in the community from random citizens,” said Sharon Pandak. “Ears perked up, and everybody said, ‘Oh, it must be discrimination.'”
That’s what Justice attorney Eric Treene will try to prove.
“We had a public meeting where naked public animus was expressed,” said Treene.
Arguing to bring the case to trial, Treene said evidence would show that such animus motivated the Board of Supervisors, which ruled 4-3 last April to deny a so-called pump-and-haul sewage permit for the planned site of the Islamic Center of Culpeper. According to the plaintiff, the county considered 26 applications and never previously denied a pump-and-haul permit for a commercial or religious use—except for the mosque.
“They did not want this particular use in their county,” he said.
“It’s not a land use issue,” countered Pandak. “It has to do with the disposal of human waste.”
The county may find support from the Virginia Department of Health, which discourages pump-and-haul permits as a safety hazard. The Justice Department, however, has already found support from Judge Moon, who seemed less wary of the systems.
“In my area,” said Moon—who lives in Lynchburg—”they’re very common because of the rain.”
Moon went on to express concern about the prospects for the land that the Islamic Center wants to buy.
“How could anyone use it,” he asked, “without a sewage system?”
Pandak replied that recent technology advances mean that land that can’t support a conventional septic system can still be developed by constructing an alternative treatment system that might cost around $25,000. (The average cost for a conventional residential system is $5,000, according to homeadvisor.com)
“This is a self-imposed hardship,” said Pandak.
Pandak also said that zoning on the property allows for the construction of alternative treatment systems and religious buildings– including a mosque.
“They can commence to build now,” said Pandak. “They have options.”
If Pandak was winning the technology argument, there was still the question of disparate treatment for churches and mosques. And when Pandak criticized the Justice Department’s discrimination claim as “speculative,” the judge stopped her.
“I think you’re trying to try the case today,” said Moon. “The court has to look at the pleadings in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.”
On Facebook a few hours after the hearing, longtime legal analyst Lloyd Snook wrote this: “When a government has lost Norman Moon, it has lost.”
Moon gave no timetable for when he will decide whether or not the matter goes to trial.