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Judge clears way for Islamic group to open facility near Naperville

A federal judge in Chicago has ruled against DuPage County’s refusal to allow an Islamic organization to open a worship center just over the eastern border of Naperville.

In a decision issued late Friday, Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer agreed with the assertion by the Irshad Learning Center that the county had violated provisions of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act in denying its request for a conditional use permit in January 2010. But while she said there was “ignorance” of the practices of Islam evident in some of the protracted proceedings over the request, she did not believe county officials discriminated against Irshad.

The 75 local families who comprise Irshad now use space in a Woodridge church for worship. The group purchased a home on three acres facing 75th Street east of Naper Boulevard in August 2008, hoping to establish a gathering place near where the members live.

In her 73-page opinion, Pallmeyer did cite the role played by Naperville Tea Patriots and Act! for America, both of which had members speak in public meetings against the worship center “for reasons that suggest religious, racial, or national origin bias and prejudice.”

The tea party group wrote a letter to Naperville City Council members several days before the County Board vote that asserted the permit request was a form of “Stealth Jihad” and that Irshad’s plan was to spread “Radical-Jihadist Islamic Ideology.”

Irshad’s 11-count complaint, filed April 8, 2010, included mention of southeast Naperville resident and active Naperville Tea Patriots member Virginia Petru, who spoke to county officials about her objections to the worship center proposal. In an email to the County Board just before its vote on the permit, Petru asked the members to seek clearance from the FBI and Homeland Security Department before approving the center, because of suspicions that Irshad could have more than a borrower’s relationship with its mortgage holder, the philanthropic Alavi Foundation, which was under federal scrutiny at the time.

Irshad’s complaint, filed by the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, initially named the county’s entire Zoning Board of Appeals, which twice voted to recommend denial of the permit, along with the 10 County Board members who voted against the proposal. Pallmeyer, who later dismissed the individual officials and left the county as the sole defendant, was nonetheless critical of the zoning panel’s handling of the matter.

“The ZBA did not recommend a single condition to alleviate its purported concerns with ILC’s proposed use,” she wrote in Friday’s ruling, which asserted that the ZBA had based its recommendations on “erroneous findings or impermissible speculation.”

Pallmeyer also said she found no evidence to support concerns aired by neighbors of the site that the worship center, formerly home to a preschool, would hinder their property values and create problems with flooding and traffic.

The DuPage County State’s Attorney’s office, which defended the case, did not comment on Pallmeyer’s ruling. Spokesman Paul Darrah, noting the decision was “lengthy,” said officials would have something to say about it next week, after they have had an opportunity to look it over.

CAIR-Chicago attorney Kevin Vodak, who argued the case for Irshad, could not be immediately reached for comment.

Naperville’s three County Board representatives at the time of the Irshad decision — Naperville residents Jim Healy and John Zediker, and Tony Michelassi of Aurora — all supported the request. Each had introduced measures intended to address concerns about the project, but they fell short of persuading their fellow board members to approve the permit.

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