US Justice Department sues Virginia county for blocking mosque
Muslim Praying (Shutterstock)

A Virginia county has discriminated against a Muslim congregation on religious grounds by halting the group's plans to build a small mosque on its land, the U.S. Justice Department said in a lawsuit filed on Monday.

The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, alleges Culpeper County violated federal law when it refused in April to grant the Islamic Center of Culpeper's permit application for a sewage system on its land.

The Justice Department said in its lawsuit that the county's decision amounted to religious discrimination and imposed a "substantial burden" on the Islamic Center of Culpeper's exercise of religion and discriminated against its members based on religion.

"The Constitution and federal law specifically protect the freedom of religious communities to establish houses of worship," Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta said in a statement announcing the lawsuit.

The lawsuit comes as Muslim and immigrant rights advocates voice concerns over religious discrimination in the United States after statements by President-elect Donald Trump about immigration and other issues. Trump has called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country.

Representatives for Culpeper County did not respond to requests for comment.

The Islamic Center of Culpeper said in a statement it had no immediate comment.

The Justice Department alleges the county violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which prohibits religious discrimination and unjustified burdens on religion exercise.

Among other things, the department asks the federal court in Virginia to grant the Islamic Center approval to use its property as a place of worship.

In February, the Islamic Center of Culpeper filed a permit application for a pump and haul system - for soil not suited to septic or municipal sewer systems - to transport sewage from the Islamic Center's property to a disposal area.

The county's decision, according to the lawsuit, effectively prevented the group from building a small mosque on its land.

The Justice Department also said Culpeper County has considered a total of 26 pump and haul requests for commercial or religious use since 1992, including nine for churches, according to the complaint. Other than the request from the Islamic Center, each has been granted, the department said.

The Islamic Center of Culpeper said on its Facebook page that it serves Muslims in the county, about 70 miles (113 km) southwest of Washington, D.C.

There is no mosque in the sparsely populated county, and adherents currently worship at a small house on the site of a used car dealership, the lawsuit said.

(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Muralikumar Anantharaman)