Over the objections of some residents, a Muslim group won the fight to build a mosque in Sterling Heights, Mich., after the city on Tuesday settled a lawsuit by the Justice Department that accused officials of religious discrimination.
The group, the American Islamic Community Center, applied to Sterling Heights, about 16 miles from downtown Detroit, to build the house of worship in August 2015. The planning commission rejected the application, citing concerns over the height of the building, parking and noise.
But the lawsuit, filed in December — and the anti-Muslim language used by many residents who spoke at public meetings about the mosque — suggested that the rejection and the uproar were more about religion than by-the-book zoning details.
The government quoted a person who said “Remember 9/11” and others who claimed that Christians would face difficulty trying to build a church in Iraq.
“We are alleging that Sterling Heights discriminated against the American Islamic Community Center on the basis of religion and placed a substantial burden on the community’s ability to exercise its religion by denying approval to build a mosque,” Barbara L. McQuade, the United States attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, said in a statement in December.
The City Council unanimously approved the settlement on Tuesday, prompting some residents to shout “terrorists” at council members and another to urge the officials to “fight against a political ideology whose goal is death to America,” according to Fox 2 Detroit.
Ms. McQuade said at a news conference on Wednesday, “It’s important to remember, in our pluralistic society, that religious minorities are entitled to the same protections as all of the rest of us.”
The lawsuit contended that the city had discriminated against the Muslim group, which has about 300 members in the Detroit suburbs, because of its religion and imposed undue burdens on its ability to build the mosque. It noted that, despite the commission’s concerns about height, churches in the city had higher steeples.
As part of the settlement, the mosque will shrink to a height of 61 feet from a planned 66 feet. The Muslim group also agreed to have no outdoor amplification or street parking.
Mayor Michael C. Taylor of Sterling Heights said in an interview on Wednesday that despite the anti-Muslim rhetoric of some residents, the rejection really was about zoning. The city is home to two previously built mosques, as well as a Sikh temple and a Buddhist temple.
“The perception was that the city is denying a mosque because the city is not welcoming to mosques, and nothing could have been further from the truth,” he said. “We are very welcoming to the A.I.C.C., but there were legitimate zoning and planning issues that had to be worked out.”
Many of the irate residents, however, made clear they were not motivated by parking concerns. Mr. Taylor said much of the resistance to the mosque came from the city’s large population of Chaldean Christians, some of whom were refugees who fled religious persecution in Iraq. They see putting a mosque in their neighborhood as a provocation, he said.
Throughout the process, anti-Muslim sentiments flared. One public commenter held up a photograph of a woman wearing a garment that covered her head and said he did not want to “be near people like this,” according to the Justice Department complaint. Another resident suggested that weapons might be hidden in the mosque. Still another said officials should screen the American Islamic Community Center’s members because “they’re cutting people’s heads off; they kill our soldiers.”
The Muslim group sought to build the house of worship after it outgrew its current mosque in nearby Madison Heights. About 70 percent of its members live in Sterling Heights, and many have lived there for decades longer than those opposing the mosque, said Azzam Elder, the lead lawyer for the community center.
He called the decision “a victory for all Americans, especially vulnerable Americans.” The group’s members, he said, “feel very relieved, because the city of Sterling Heights finally realized who they are: They’re veterans who have served in the U.S. military; they’re professionals; they’re everyday Americans.”
Mohammed Abdrabboh, another lawyer representing the Muslim group, said at the news conference, “Ignorance coupled with government power can be very difficult to overcome.”
“Today, however, it really is a victory for pluralism, tolerance and basic human decency,” he added.
When a reporter asked why the group would want to build in a place where neighbors were unwelcoming, Ms. McQuade intervened.
“Because America says you get to be where you want to be,” she said. “If you own land, you don’t have to leave because your neighbors don’t want you there.”