Permit denial for Va. Islamic center draws federal scrutiny

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating whether Culpeper County, Virginia, violated federal religious land use laws by turning down an Islamic prayer center’s request for a sewage removal permit.

The civil rights probe will review the county’s zoning code, land use policies and past pump and haul permitting in addition to the permit application for the Islamic Center of Culpeper, according to a Justice Department letter sent to the county in May. Investigators have requested 25 years worth of documents.

In an email to WTOP, County Administrator John Egertson said that he expects a “favorable outcome” for the county.

The county’s Board of Supervisors in April rejected a request for a pump and haul permit, which was needed for the center to be built on a residential lot along Rixelyville Road, the The Free-Lance Star reported.

Pump and haul permits allow the installation of a septic tank on land that isn’t suitable for a typical septic drain field, and the tank is emptied regularly by a septic tank cleaning service. Documents provided to the county board said that there is an existing well and poor soil conditions on the site, which also features a dilapidated house.

Several board members had acknowledged they were criticized by residents who were concerned about the Muslim prayer house, The Free-Lance Star reported.

According to the paper, Mohammad Nawabe — an American citizen from Afghanistan — said he bought the land after the board’s rejection, and is determined to build on the site.

Nawabe told the paper only 15 congregants per week would use the facility, and that it would not be disruptive to the rural community.

The 2000 federal law prohibits land use policies that discriminate against religious assemblies or institutions or that impose substantial burdens on such entities.

Plans to expand an established mosque in nearby Spotsylvania County generated heated opposition from residents last November. Leaders with the Islamic Center of Fredericksburg said last week that they are rethinking their plans after what they called “anti-Muslim” backlash from neighbors.

WTOP’s Amanda Iacone contributed to this report.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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