Lomita will reconsider a mosque's rejected redevelopment plans as part of a settlement agreement with the Islamic center and the federal government.
The Department of Justice launched a civil rights probe in 2011 into whether Lomita officials violated federal law in rejecting the plans the previous year by the Islamic Center of the South Bay. Five months after the investigation began, the mosque filed a lawsuit alleging its plans were rejected because of religious discrimination.
The Justice Department has since concluded there was no evidence city officials were guilty of religious discrimination, City Attorney Christi Hogin said.
However, federal officials do believe the city's denial created "a substantial burden on the exercise of religion," a violation of federal law. A substantial burden exists when a denial results in over-crowding or other effects that hamper the conduct of religious practices.
Mosque officials have said previously their lack of prayer space violates Islamic principles.
So the Justice Department signaled its intention to file a lawsuit on that basis against Lomita, which denies the allegations.
The settlement puts on hold both lawsuits while the city reconsiders the redevelopment plan, which was originally rejected because of parking and traffic circulation concerns, Hogin said.
The city was actually in discussions with the mosque to tweak the project when it was "blindsided" by the lawsuit, she said.
Although the city believes it would prevail in the lawsuits, spending the money on legal fees would not solve anything since the mosque would still own the property and the issue would remain unresolved.
"This is not a dispute that can be meaningfully resolved in a court, which is why I think the settlement is the best outcome for everybody," Hogin said. "We don't need to spend $250,000 (on legal fees) to reach the point where we are at right now."
Mosque representatives also sounded hopeful the settlement will lead to a resolution of the long-standing controversy.
"We are encouraged by this agreement and hopeful that the Islamic Center will soon have a beautiful new mosque for its congregants," said Pasadena attorney Anne Richardson.
Essentially, the process will begin anew, Hogin said.
"There will be a complete do-over, but for a different project, and everyone will have a chance to come down and tell us what is right and what is wrong with the project," she said.
The city has also revamped its Municipal Code that eliminated "special regulations imposed only on religious facilities" to comply with a 2011 court ruling that said places of worship must be treated the same as auditoriums, clubs and other places people gather.
The Department of Justice reserves the right to reinstate the case if the development application is not resolved by the end of the year.
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