LILBURN -- What exactly did we do wrong?
A dozen or so officials from the city of Lilburn -- council and mayor, planning and zoning, code enforcement -- participated in federally mandated training regarding the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) Wednesday night.
The session was a condition of the city's August settlement of the lawsuit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice alleging religious bias in Lilburn's handling of rezoning applications from the Dar-E-Abbas mosque.
Attorney Doug Dillard -- who, ironically, represented Dar-E-Abbas during the years-long battle -- led city officials through the entire 43-page body of RLUIPA law, which basically states that no government can treat a land-use proposal from a religious group differently than any other.
"There need to be concrete, objective reasons why the application is denied," Dillard said.
He balked at providing a direct answer, however, when one official asked that question: What exactly did the city do wrong?
After the formal meeting, Councilman Tim Dunn held an impromptu session with a few stragglers, and made it quite clear that he felt Lilburn did nothing wrong.
"Because of the reaction of a few citizens in Lilburn, we got a reputation," he said. "It's because of the actions of a few citizens of Lilburn that the DOJ looked in on us and said 'man, another backwoods, Southern, bigoted ... ' none of this is true."
Dunn quickly ran down the reasons for the rejections of Dar-E-Abbas' proposals. First the proposed cemetery. Once that issue was resolved, the council still wanted a better site plan, Dunn said. Since Mayor Diana Preston had recused herself -- because of family land involved in the deal -- a 2-2 vote in 2010 meant a stalemate.
That legally constituted a denial.
On Aug. 16, the council approved the Shia Muslim group's plan, satisfied with the new "very detailed" site plan, Dunn said. He cited two similar cases involving Christian groups -- Providence Christian Academy and Killian Hill Baptist Church -- in which Lilburn "put them through the ringer" before approving their zoning proposals.
"You tell me how we discriminated. We approved it," Dunn said. "Dar-E-Abbas dropped their suit. They didn't think we were discriminating. They were negotiating in good faith with us for two years."
Dar-E-Abbas immediately dropped its suit following approval. Just a few days later the Department of Justice filed its own suit, this one alleging religious bias.
Dunn said the city could have beat that lawsuit if it had not settled, calling it "without basis."
City Manager Bill Johnsa said, though, that the federal lawsuit would not have been covered by the city's insurance. What would have likely been a years-long court battle would have directly cost the city and its taxpayers, he said.