Religious Freedom Lawsuit Over Street Naming

From (via Prof. Howard Friedman [Religion Clause]):

The leaders of a city mosque filed a federal lawsuit on Sunday saying municipal officials violated their Constitutional rights of freedom of religion by naming the street where the building is located after a deceased member of the Islamic group.

The lawsuit also accuses Councilman Mohammed Aktraruzzman of “patronage” by leading the effort to rename the street after a family member of his political supporters.

The quickly-prepared lawsuit was filed two days before the City Council is scheduled to vote on Tuesday whether to rescind its resolution designating a portion of Van Houten Street in the 1st Ward in honor of Alhaj Forman Ali….

“It is a fundamental principle of the Islamic religion that a Mosque does not belong to any individual, but rather to the community;” reads the lawsuit, “and that within the Mosque, no one person or family may be elevated or honored above another, as the glorification of one serves to diminish the importance and contribution of all others.” …

“Many members of the Mosque have already informed the leadership of the Foundation that because the designation of the street in honor of one individual, on the basis of the contribution that he is claimed to have made to the establishment of the Foundation and the Mosque, violates Islamic law and taints the Mosque as a place of worship where all men are deemed to be equal, they must give up their membership in the Foundation, and will seek out an alternative place of worship,” says the suit.

“As a direct result of the actions of the Council, the Foundation is thus facing the imminent loss of the religious, spiritual, and financial support and participation of the Bangladeshi community,” says the suit, “and the inevitable result of this governmental action will be that the property located at 61 Van Houten Street, after serving the community for over thirty years, can no longer be used as a Islamic place of worship.”

Forman Ali’s son called the assertions in the lawsuit “all lies.” …

The lawsuit is likely to go nowhere in court: Under Bowen v. Roy (1986) and Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Assn. (1988), there’s no Free Exercise Clause problem with government control over its property, even if the government’s action is seen by some religious group as burdening its religious beliefs (for instance, because it uses a social security number to refer to a person who thinks such labeling is spiritually harmful, or because it diminishes the seclusion of federal property that a group views as sacred). This is even more clear after Employment Division v. Smith (1990). And while the rule might be different for government action that targets religion for special burdens, I don’t think that renaming a street after a prominent community member — even because of his role in the mosque — would qualify as such impermissible discrimination against religion.

The rules are different under the Establishment Clause: The Court has held that government action related to its own property can violate the Establishment Clause, if its purpose or effect is to endorse or disapprove of religion, so calling a street Praise Allah Boulevard or, for that matter, renaming a street on which a mosque is billed to That Nasty Mosque Street, would likely be unconstitutional. But that doesn’t seem to be the nature of the alleged problem here; the objection isn’t that the naming endorses or disapproves of some religious viewpoint, but rather that the naming is contrary to the mosque leadership’s religious beliefs. That’s a Free Exercise Clause claim, which isn’t viable given the cases cited above.

But it’s possible that the lawsuit — and the broader controversy — will have an effect on today’s Council vote. Ah, local politics.

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