CHICAGO -- A southwest Chicago suburb did not violate the civil rights of a Muslim group that wanted to purchase a vacant church and turn it into mosque, according to a federal jury.
The Al Salam Mosque Foundation filed a lawsuit against the city of Palos Heights in 2000, alleging the city council conspired to foil its plan to buy the vacant Reformed Church of Palos Heights and convert it into a mosque and a school. The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago, accused the council of religious discrimination and breach of contract.
The council had offered the foundation $200,000 to drop its plan to buy the church. At the time, aldermen insisted they offered the payment so the city could buy the church and convert it into much-needed recreation space.
An attorney representing the mosque originally said the group would turn down the offer. Later, he said the group would rather accept the money and remove itself from the politically charged debate.
But the deal fell apart when former mayor Dean Koldenhoven vetoed the payout, calling it "an insult" to the community's Muslims.
Koldenhoven, a defendant in the case, said the jury's verdict Friday would allow the city and community to put the issue to rest.
"I'm very happy for the people of Palos Heights," Koldenhoven said. "I'm sure they'll be well pleased."
The foundation's attorney, Gregory Kulis, said he hoped the verdict would not send the wrong message to other cities or Muslim groups seeking to purchase property.
"People are talking about it and realizing we are all equal in this country," Kulis said. "We are proud that this case has brought the issue of religious freedom to the forefront not only locally but across the nation. I hope the rest of the country will accept Muslims for what they are: American."
Foundation President Abdallah El Sheikh said the group would consider appealing the ruling.
The issue divided residents in Palos Heights, a mostly Christian town of about 12,000 people. During the trial, witnesses for the mosque said some participants at City Council meetings used racial slurs.
Koldenhoven, who spoke out against bigotry and religious intolerance during the dispute, lost his re-election bid in 2001. He was awarded a John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in 2002 for his stance on the mosque issue.