Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Tough public policy issue with mosques: Wahhabism

As someone who believes strongly in the US Bill of Rights and the First Amendment clause that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," I don't believe that governments should get in the way of churches opening or operating as churches. That being said there can be plenty of urban policy issues that then become complex:

- building regulation including historic preservation requirements
- parking accommodations when church congregations become disconnected from the neighborhood in which the church is located
- acquisition of adjoining properties by churches and warehousing/mothballing  practices contributing to neglect/nuisance properties (Shiloh Baptist Church in DC)
- advocacy for voucher programs to fund attendance at church schools
- funding improvements and maintenance of buildings as congregation membership declines
- reuse of properties
- property tax exemptions
- religious symbols (creches etc.) placed in the public space


I do have a problem when religious organizations seek special treatment, claiming special treatment is in fact "normal treatment," such as through the federal Religious Land Use And Institutionalized Persons Act, which comes up a lot when it comes to land use and building regulation.

Many churches argue that because of the First Amendment, they should be exempt from all laws, or because of RLUIPA that somehow a building regulation is a stricture against practicing religion.  (At the national level this comes up with laws concerning the provision of health care services including abortion, or with pharmacists who refuse to dispense legal drugs associated with abortion, etc.)

In DC this has come up with historic preservation laws and the eventual decision to demolish a landmarked church building ("The Third Church of Christ, Scientist challenge to the DC historic preservation laws" and "The slippery slope of economic hardship arguments to obviate historic preservation protections") as well as with a conservative sect that doesn't believe in graven images, in this case "stained glass windows," and attempted to remove the windows from an existing church building they purchased which is located in the Capitol Hill Historic District (Hepworth Church Decision, Mayor's Agent, DC)

Some Councilmembers--I don't agree--have suggested passing a law giving churches an exemption from the historic preservation laws.

With regard to providing "support" to churches, in the UK, because of how the Anglican religion was the official religion of state, there still exist today on some properties a legal responsibility to fund repairs to church buildings.

Obviously we don't have such requirements in the US.  But there needs to be some mechanism to assist congregations that need help maintaining their properties, when such deterioration has a negative impact on the adjacent neighborhood.

-- Partners for Sacred Spaces is a "non-denominational nonprofit organization focused on caring for and making good use of older and historic religious properties"

And churches, focused on parking and other issues, can become vociferous opponents of neighborhood and urban change.  See the preamble discussion from this reprinted blog entry, "Churches, community, religion and change," on the biking/parking issue, and the rest of the entry for a more general discussion about the changing roles of urban churches.

Other jurisdictions have cases where new churches haven't been approved, denied water connections, etc. And some jurisdictions don't favor new churches because it takes property off the tax rolls, and localities are dependent on property tax revenue for the bulk of their budget.

Islamic facilities have come under increasing scrutiny since 9/11, with opposition in many places, with people fearing the religion's more recent association with terrorism amidst the unending escalating nightmare in the Middle East, sparked by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Still, as religious institutions, they have the right to open, whether or not people practice other faiths.

2. Negative public policy ramifications from the Wahhabi brand of Islam.  But an article in the Washington Post ("A mosque is at the center of a raw debate in the South of France"), about opposition to the creation of a particular mosque in France, outside of Nice, where a brutal terrorist act last summer killed 86 people, raises an interesting point.

The opposition to this mosque comes about because of its association with the Wahhabi version of Islam, which treats non-adherents to that particular sect as apostates and enemies ("Wahhabism: Saudi Time Bomb?," PBS "Frontline").

There is a connection between Wahhabism and many of the people who have committed terrorist acts in Europe especially, but I think also in the US. And the Saudi Arabian government has actively supported the creation of Wahhabism-practicing mosques across Europe.

Leaders of Mosque En-Nour say they don't practice Wahhabism, but opposition centers around how the property was purchased by the Minister of Islamic Affairs of Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia exports Wahhabism.

In the US, the First Amendment is absolute. A church regardless of its teachings can't be restricted. 

But you can see why promotion of the Wahhabi religion would be considered counter to public safety and governments are supposed to protect the safety of the public.

What should be the policy when  a particular religion espouses or supports violence against non-adherents?

Should such practice justify an exception to the First Amendment?

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At 11:29 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

The first amendment is not absolute.

With religion, you've got the establishment clause and the free exercise clause.

Mostly you are talking about the free exercise clause, although in DC we have an establishment clause problem.

In terms of free exercise, there have been plenty of restrictions.

Can I create a religion for tax purposes. No. Can I take peyote -- only if I am a "real" American Indian. Can I take my ashes and dump them into a river?

So plenty of nips and tuck in there.

For instance, the call the prayer is going to be regulated. Trust me, you don't want that at 4am.

In terms of the Saudi money, I'm not sure that a government regulation prohibiting that money is unconstitutional.

And it is toxic. Anything that touches Saudi is suspect.

(And the US is spending millions overseas promoting anti-salafi islam. Or was. You've got more of an issue with domestic propaganda laws than con law here).

I'd agree the real issue is regulating it, which is much harder under the establishment clause.

France for instance is doing that.

You might enjoy this:

You can deal with the issue pretty easily. Islamic schools have to be co-ed. No arabic. No saudis.

At 12:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

traditional quality religious architecture is alive and well in Islamic countries and we should follow their wonderful example of not abandoning this quality and artistic sensibility- I am sick of seeing houses of worship here that have incorporated ugly brutalist apathetic approaches- ugly cheap and temporary. Obviously the Islamic congregations have done something right to preserve building trades we in the USA have allowed to disintegrate and to decay.


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