With Joseph Lieberman on the Democratic ticket, this political season may offer a chance to measure anew the dimensions of American prejudice. Another recent test of the limits of religious tolerance can be found in south-suburban Chicago. Having outgrown its worship space, in April the Al Salam Mosque Foundation contracted to purchase the Reformed Church of Palos Heights, Illinois. The resulting complications have left all sides unhappy and raise questions about just who Americans are willing to accept as neighbors.
Once the impending sale of the Reformed Church became common knowledge in Palos Heights, a middle-class community of around 12,000 people, many residents and city aldermen objected to the impending sale. Why? Nearby residents raised nonreligious issues. What about the traffic? they asked. (One struggles to imagine similar concerns arising when the Reformed Church first moved to town.) And what about the city's recreational needs? Some dreamed of adding the property to the city recreation center, just across the street. One citizen insisted that her objection to the potential sale "has nothing to do with who wants to buy" the property and everything to do with Palos Heights's need for land.
Aldermen, apparently surprised that the property was even on the market, sought ways to thwart the sale and take the land for the city. One alderman wanted to seize the property by condemning it. Meanwhile the mayor, who all along knew the property was for sale, insisted that it did not suit the city's long-term needs.
The situation became even more brambled from there. In June the city council offered the mosque association $200,000 to walk away from the property. A few weeks later, presumably tired of the hassle and feeling increasingly unwelcome in Palos Heights, the Al Salam Mosque Foundation accepted the buyout offer. But soon after this, the city's mayor, Dean Koldenhoven, vetoed the measure, calling the move insulting to Muslims and fiscally irresponsible. With its with the contract to purchase the church expiring in mid-August, and uncertain whether or not the city would follow through on its original offer, the mosque foundation filed a $6.2 million discrimination lawsuit against the city and its governing officials. Currently the Justice Department is working to get the parties into federal mediation, but so far to no avail.
What can be learned from this controversy? Despite the nonreligious questions raised by residents, rank religious prejudice is not far below the surface in some cases. One citizen, speaking for who knows how many fellow residents, told a reporter, "I'm not going to lie to you -- we don't want them." And some city officials demonstrated ignorance at best, religious bias at worst. Alderman Jim Murphy, for example, expressing his impatience with the city government's slow response to this imagined crisis, noted: "If someone had intervened early on to stop Adolf Hitler, there might not have been a world war." Another alderman, Julie Corsi, seemingly couldn't fathom the Muslim pattern of worship. "What you are proposing," she said to the mosque foundation, "is like upside down. Your [worship service] is on Friday, and then you are not going to use the property on Sunday. It's kind of like comparing apples and oranges." Apparently only certain kinds of produce can be offered for sale in the Palos Heights religious marketplace.
Religious pioneers like the Al Salam Mosque Foundation may always have to overcome fear and ignorance when entering a new community. Palos Heights currently has no mosque, and only with this episode have the 450 or so Muslim families in the city appeared on the public radar screen. Once aware, residents no doubt overreacted to this perceived threat to suburban stability. Given the typical media portrayals of Muslims as terrorists or revolutionaries, the work of breaking down religious barriers may often be tougher for Muslims to accomplish than it is for other religious minorities.
Their are hopeful signs amid the charges and countercharges. Alderman Murphy quickly apologized for his Hitler reference and toned down his rhetoric. Several faith groups throughout the Chicago area quickly spoke up in support and defense of the mosque foundation. And Mayor Koldenhoven has indicated how distasteful he finds the anti-Muslim comments of constituents: "It hurts me," he said back in mid-May. "Here we are, coming up on Memorial Day. People fought and died for these freedoms; we talk about these freedoms. But then some people decide they're not freedoms for everyone."
However the dispute is finally resolved, Palos Heights plans a series of community dialogues between Muslims and Christians. The first will take place in the next few months at the city's Trinity Christian College -- not exactly the Switzerland of religious neutrality, but it's a start. The Al Salam Mosque Foundation's Muslims may not be worshiping in Palos Heights any time soon, but perhaps their struggle will help smooth the path for the next religious group looking for a new place to worship.