By GRACE MARION
During Ramadan, Ray Elk and his family would return home at 1 a.m.
His children had to be up for school the next morning, but the late night was unavoidable. There are 13 churches in Horn Lake and 132 total in DeSoto County, but the Northwest Mississippi county has no mosque. Muslim Mississippians had to drive north, across the state line, to Memphis, Tenn.
Elk and fellow resident Maher Abuurshaid began planning to build a mosque in their community so they could worship close to home. They spent more than two years working to make sure that one day their families could attend services without setting aside hours of their day to commute.
“Without a local mosque, my family and I cannot practice our religion as we would like,” Abuurshaid said at a Nov. 3, 2021 press conference the Mississippi Free Press covered. “We are often unable to attend Friday prayer, afternoon prayer services. … We are unable to fully practice observance and celebration of Islamic holidays, including evening prayer services during the holy month of Ramadan.”
After buying land on Church Road in Horn Lake and working with an architect to design the building, Elk and Abuurshaid presented their plan to build the mosque—the Abraham House of God—to the Horn Lake Board of Aldermen on Feb. 22, 2021, but the city officials denied them building permits, not hiding in public meetings that the refusal was because it was a Muslim facility.
“If you let them build it, they will come,” Alderman John E. Jones Jr. said at the meeting, while replying to mosque architect Douglas Thornton on April 20, 2021. “I think we need to stop it before it gets here.”
The mosque planners sued in federal court in November 2021 with the Mississippi ACLU representing them. After almost a year of appeals and legal proceedings, they have won their case with the parties reaching an agreement detailed in a binding federal consent decree.
As of Jan. 3, 2022, the Elks, the Abuurshaids, and more than a dozen other Muslim families in Horn Lake now know they will not have to worry about driving across state lines to to exercise their right to worship as they choose for much longer.
‘I Don’t Care What They Say’
The Muslim community in Horn Lake had to navigate a minefield of challenges before the courts affirmed their First Amendment right to build a mosque in DeSoto County. After originally denying the mosque’s building permits in February 2021, the Horn Lake Board of Alderman denied them again when they appealed the decision in the April 20, 2021, meeting.
The Horn Lake Board of Aldermen rejected the appeal, and on Nov. 3, 2021, the Mississippi American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Abraham House of God that would soon win their case.
In this filing, ACLU of Mississippi Legal Director Joshua Tom and his associates at Simpson, Thatcher and Bartlett, LLC quoted what Horn Lake Alderman Jones had later said to a local newspaper.
“I don’t care what they say, their religion says they can lie or do anything to the Jews or gentiles because we’re not Muslims,” Jones told the Commercial Appeal.
But another alderman, Charlie Roberts, had a change of heart after that meeting, telling the Mississippi Free Press: “We stepped over the line of violating not only discriminatory rights because they’re Muslims, and also their freedom of religion. It’s like a double whammy.””
Just hours after the ACLU filed the lawsuit in November 2021, Federal District Judge Michael P. Mills issued an order in response that encouraged Horn Lake to settle the case privately.
“Barring such a settlement, this court will proceed with all due haste in ascertaining the truth or falsity of the allegations raised in the Complaint,” Mills warned.
“Given the seriousness of the issues raised in this case, this court intends to move expeditiously in scheduling a hearing and making a ruling regarding the issues raised herein.”
All parties agreed to the Jan. 3, 2022, consent decree that fulfills Judge Mills’ suggestion for Horn Lake to reach an agreement with the Abraham House of God Plaintiffs themselves. A consent decree is an agreement that settles a dispute between two parties without either having to admit fault, signed by a judge and enforceable by the court.
‘Like Another Church on Church Road’
Under the agreements in the Jan. 3 consent decree, the City of Horn Lake must grant the Abraham House of God Mosque and Cemetery the building permits its organizers first requested in February 2021.
“No more than 14 days from the date of this Order, Defendants shall grant approval for the February 8, 2021, Site Plan Review Application for the Abraham House of God (the “Site Plan”), as presented,” the consent decree states.
The mosque’s legal team celebrated the agreement. The Horn Lake city attorney advised Mayor Allen Latimer not to comment on the ruling, the DeSoto County Times reported on Jan. 4.
“We hope that this consent decree does put other cities in Mississippi, the Memphis area and the general region on notice that if you discriminate against somebody on the basis of religion, you’re going to be held to account,” attorney Joshua Tom told the Mississippi Free Press on Jan. 5, 2022.
Elk hopes to ease the worries of anyone in the community who might still have concerns.
“I know probably there’s a lot of fear, but I think they don’t need to worry about anything,” Elk told the Mississippi Free Press on Jan. 5, 2022. “This would be like another church on Church Road.”
“Our door will be open to everybody, not just the Muslim community,” Elk said. “They are welcome to see what we’re doing, to see how we practice our faith, to understand our religion more and we will be happy for anybody to come in.”
Building Friendships Amid Protests
After voting to deny the Abraham House of God mosque building permits, Horn Lake Alderman Charlie Roberts visited a mosque for the first time, in Memphis.
After his visit to the mosque, Roberts called Elk to share that his heart had changed about the mosque; at the next Board of Aldermen meeting, on May 4, 2021, Roberts proclaimed his new perspective publicly.
“If we can have Baptist churches, Methodist churches, Pentecostal churches on every corner and have the freedom to religion, we also should be able to allow our our Islamic Muslim friends to have the same worship,” Roberts told fellow city leaders. “I support the freedom of religion, and I will stand behind the freedom of religion for everybody.”
Despite Roberts’ change of heart, city officials had already denied the mosque’s appeal.
They had also denied the counsel of Pastor Steve Stone.
“Several years ago, a group of Muslims bought land right across the street from us,” Stone said at a Nov 3, 2021, press conference.
“I didn’t know any Muslims,” Stone said. “I felt a little fear about that, but I know fear is not supposed to make our decisions for us.”
Stone’s church began working with members of the soon-to-be mosque, developing interfaith friendships between their congregations.
“These people were actually our neighbors right across the street, and we found a way to welcome them into our community,” Stone said. “And out of that, those new neighbors became great friends, and out of that great friendship, the Friendship Foundation was formed.”
Elk plans to continue friendships with community members who have supported his mosque along the way. “Next week, I invited him to my house.” Elk said of Stone on Jan. 5 after winning the legal battle. “He’s gonna come here, bring his spouse, and we’re gonna have dinner together.”
Court to Oversee Mosque Building Permits
The consent decree gives the court jurisdiction over the City of Horn Lake’s handling of the mosque’s building permits for the next five years. It is relatively common for courts to order continued oversight over consent decrees like this one, Tom said.
“That provision is sort of more for insurance,” Tom said. “We want to avoid a situation where they get a first permit, but then the city decides to give them trouble and subsequent permitting stages. So that continued court oversight ensures that the city does continue to comply with the consent decree and does not discriminate against our clients.”
The City of Horn Lake must pay $25,000 to the mosque group, in addition to the mosque’s legal expenses.
Elk, a DeSoto County resident and father of six, hopes that the mosque will follow in the footsteps of its namesake, the Abraham House of God in Hebron.
“There is another Abraham House of God, in Israel or in Palestine, and that mosque has been feeding the hungry for the past 4,000 years, non-stop on a daily basis,” Elk said. “It’s an awesome thing.”
He has spoken with mosque co-founder Abuurshaid and some of their community members about possible plans.
“That’s something we might be doing in the future—where we build a kitchen, and we’ll have people donating food, and whoever is hungry from the community can come in, have a hot meal,” Elk said. “So there are a lot of things in the future.”
“We have to go one step at a time.”
This article was first published by Mississippi Free Press