Council OKs mosque in South County

BY MIKE SHERWIN, ASSISTANT EDITOR

St. Louis Muslims will be able to build a new mosque in St. Louis County, thanks in part to advocacy by Jews and local religious leaders.

Last week, the St. Louis County Council reversed a previous decision, and voted unanimously in favor of a zoning change that will allow a mosque to be built in Lemay.

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In April, the Council voted 4-3 against the zoning change requested by the Islamic Community Center (also known as Madina Masjid). The ICC currently has one mosque and community center facility near Lansdowne and Kingshighway in South St. Louis. The ICC had hoped to open a second facility in Lemay, to serve the large number of Bosnian Muslims moving from the city to the county.

The County Council decision to not allow a change in zoning from commercial to residential use for the Lemay location, near Mehlville High School off Lemay Ferry Road, went against the recommendation of the County’s planning commission, which supported the proposed 25,000 square-foot mosque and community center.

Some members of the council argued that neighbors were concerned with the traffic and hours of operation of the proposed center.

In May, the mosque filed a lawsuit against the County Council, challenging its April decision.

However, the mosque’s spiritual leader, Imam Muhamed Hasic, did not turn solely to the law for relief. He also called upon his friends in the community, including Khalid Shah, a member of the mosque.

Shah emailed his longtime friend, Rick Isserman and told him about the mosque’s plight.

Isserman and Shah have known each other for about 10 years, and have participated in interfaith dialogue groups together since 1998 with an Interfaith Partnership group. In 2006, they formed their own group, Confluence of Faith, with members of Temple Israel and the Daar-ul Islam Mosque in West County. The group, led by Dr. Waheed Rana and Rabbi Mark Shook, studies the Torah and the Qu’aran with monthly meetings, alternately meeting at each of the congregations.

“Who do you look to when you’re in trouble, but your friends?” Shah said. “Imam Hasic tried to work within the system, and go through government channels, but finally, he said, ‘I need help,'” Shah recalled.

The zoning dispute with the County Council sounded like a reprise of a court battle Isserman’s grandfather, the late Rabbi Ferdinand Isserman, fought with Creve Coeur when the congregation wanted to move out to the county. The ensuing case, Congregation Temple Israel v. City of Creve Coeur, which was decided by the Missouri Supreme Court in 1959, became a landmark victory for religious institutions.The decision states that municipalities do not have regulatory power over the religious institutions, except for “matters pertaining to public health, safety and welfare.”

Rick Isserman said that back in the 1950s, religious leaders helped Temple Israel’s case, including the St. Louis Archdiocese and the Episcopal Church. “Fifty years ago, the religious community rallied around Temple Israel,” Isserman said. “Now it was our turn to help someone else out.”

After hearing from Shah about the mosque’s troubles, Isserman said, “I can’t tell you how much this upset me, that this fight is still going on today. I thought, ‘I’m going to use every skill I have so that this will not happen again.”

Isserman approached Temple Israel Senior Rabbi Mark Shook, who responded with a series of emails. “I picked out my designated councilwoman, and I fired off an email … reminding her of the precedent set by the case involving the congregation,” Shook said. He copied the email to the other members of the Council and also notified members of Interfaith Partnership about the situation, he said, and he used his regular radio commentary on KWMU to talk about the issue.

In addition, Temple Israel congregants wrote letters, emails and made telephone calls to the members of the County Council.

On July 17, Shah and Isserman, along with Melissa Matos, from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and Elvir Manozukic, a member of the local Bosnian community, spoke to the council.

Around the same time, Isserman pitched the story to the media, resulting in several stories in local news outlets.

“Then momentum began to build,” Shah said. “We made our speeches (at the meeting in July) but then the campaign began in earnest. Soon we had people from all over standing in support with us.”

Isserman said that supporters of the mosque, including local clergy, contacted local politicians, including County Executive Charlie Dooley and U.S. Sen. Kit Bond’s office.

Later in July, more than a dozen religious and political leaders held a press conference at the Islamic Community Center, publicly stating support of its zoning battle.

During the first week of August, the Council received a report from the county’s director of planning stating that the traffic and hours of operation of the mosque would be “substantially fewer” than past commercial uses of the site. Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, who represents District 3, and in whose district Temple Israel is located, and Councilman Gregory Quinn, of District 7, introduced a resolution to allow the zoning change, so the mosque and community center could be built.

On Aug. 14, approximately 100 supporters of the mosque attended the County Council meeting where the resolution was voted on. Five supporters spoke at the meeting, including Dr. Gul Shah, Khalid Shah’s wife; Rev. Dr. Martin Rafanan, a minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and president and CEO of the National Conference for Community and Justice; and Howard Nelson, a board member of Interfaith Partnership and a representative of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

“People were cheering at this County Council meeting,” Isserman said. “And you just don’t do that typically at these kinds of meetings.”

“It took Temple Israel four years to win its case,” Shah said. “It could have been a long and tortuous battle … but here it didn’t have to go to court and it took only a few weeks and everyone came out of it looking very good.”

Shah said that the community support for the mosque was built on a foundation of friendships built over the years, particularly through interfaith groups like Interfaith Partnership, Faith Beyond Walls, and congregational groups, like Confluence of Faith.

“When you get in trouble is not the time to build bridges. You have to have those bridges in place,” Shah said.

As of press time, Councilman John Campisi, who represents Lemay, did not respond phone messages from the Jewish Light.

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