The U.S. Justice Department is investigating to determine whether Culpeper County’s Board of Supervisors discriminated against a local Muslim congregation when it turned down a pump-and-haul sewage request for an Islamic prayer house in April.
“They are reviewing our pump-and-haul policy to see if we are in compliance with the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act,” County Administrator John Egertson confirmed Tuesday.
By a 4–3 vote, the supervisors turned down a request by Mohamed Nawabe and the Islamic Center of Culpeper to build a small prayer house on a one-acre parcel off State Route 229 just north of the Ira Hoffman Lane intersection.
Supervisors Jack Frazier, Bill Chase, Gary Deal and Steve Walker voted to deny Nawabe’s pump-and-haul request (the land is not conducive to a conventional septic system). Supervisors Alexa Fritz, Bradley Rosenberger and Sue Hansohn voted against the motion to deny.
The issue originally came before the supervisors at their March meeting, but was quickly tabled for 30 days. That move came on the heels of political activist Kurt Christensen’s email to the supervisors and to the media raising concerns about the permit being on the agenda.
Several supervisors later acknowledged that in the days prior to the April vote they were criticized by residents who were concerned about the prayer house. Fritz, who is chairman of the board, displayed a photo of a hate sign in her district.
The boardroom was filled with angry citizens on the morning of the vote.
Pump-and-haul permits had been a rather routine matter in previous years, with Egertson pointing out that about 15 had been granted since 1995. One was for a parcel of land on which a Lutheran congregation had planned to build a church. That application was later renewed without discussion.
Despite the board’s rejection of the permit, Nawabe bought the land and continued his fight to have a prayer house there. He has stated that the facility would be used by only about 15 people per week and would not disturb the neighborhood.
“This is not something to hurt the community,” Nawabe said Tuesday. “This is just some place to worship.”
Nawabe, an American citizen and Culpeper businessman who hails from Afghanistan, said that he has begun clearing the trees and bushes on the property and has received a permit to demolish the long-abandoned house there. He said the local fire department will likely burn the building.
Egertson said he did not know exactly how the Justice Department will conduct its investigation or when the county should expect to learn the results of the probe. He was, however, confident that no discrimination would be found.
“I think they will find that we’re wholly compliant [with the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act],” the county administrator said.
“I suppose they’ll talk to me, but I have no idea what they’re after,” said Chase, who offered the motion to deny the permit. “We’ve never given a permit for vacant land. There’s always been a house on it and it was an emergency. There was no [occupied] house on this land.”
Last week, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to freeze all pump-and-haul requests for 120 days while the present ordinance concerning issuing such permits is updated.