By Patrick Fox
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
A federal judge has ruled in favor of Alpharetta in its decision to deny the Islamic Center of North Fulton permission to expand its facility on Rucker Road.
Federal District Judge J. Owen Forrester dismissed claims this week by the center that the 2010 action places a substantial burden on the center's ability to exercise religion. He ruled the city's action created no such burden on the center, at least no burden it could not have anticipated when it bought the property in 1998.
"The mere fact that a church, mosque or synagogue has outgrown its current facilities does not mean that it is substantially burdened under [the federal law]," Forrester wrote. "If it were otherwise, there would be no practical limit on such growth, regardless of the surrounding land uses."
The case has drawn the interest of the U.S. Justice Department, which confirmed Friday it will continue its own investigation under a federal law that requires local governments to prove decisions made in zoning cases are not discriminatory and serve public need.
The Alpharetta City Council voted 6-0 in May 2010 to reject plans by the center to tear down its 2,500-square-foot worship house and construct two buildings: a 1,900-square-foot multipurpose facility and a 12,000-square-foot, two-story main building. Council members said they were concerned that the worship center was backing out of previous agreements not to expand, made before Alpharetta annexed the property from Fulton County in 2005.
The judge's ruling does not address claims that could be considered in a state court, only those that deal with federal discrimination laws.
Andrea Jones, attorney for the Islamic Center, said no decisions have been made on whether to appeal the ruling or to pursue the case in a state court.
"Obviously, we're not pleased, but we need to think through how to proceed," she said. "We should know something fairly soon."
Alpharetta City Attorney Sam Thomas said many of the elements the judge ruled on could be applied in a local court, so he feels confident the city's case will hold up at any level.
"I think the key to the case was convincing the court that there was no evidence to suggest that the city based its decision on religion," Thomas said.
Alpharetta's fate is in stark contrast to the outcome in a similar case involving a mosque in Lilburn. Facing a formal complaint from the Justice Department last August, the city capitulated to Dar-E-Abbas' requests for rezoning to build a mosque on its property on Hood Road.
The DOJ found the city's original denial to have been based on the "religious bias of city officials and to appease members of the public who opposed the construction of a mosque because of religious bias," said a press release from the DOJ.