Mayfield, Ky., my hometown, will have a Muslim prayer space after all.
The city’s board of zoning adjustments recently reversed itself and approved a Somali man’s request for such a space, which the media and many townsfolk have been calling a mosque.
“This is a good-hearted town,” Tom Waldrop, a former city council member, told the Louisville Courier-Journal after the vote. “This is not a mean town.”
In August, the board voted to grant the permit, then reconvened and voted it down.
Some Somali Muslims, many of whom work at a local chicken processing plant, had petitioned the city to let them turn an empty store into a house of worship. After the board approved the permit, some people complained that they hadn’t had a chance to comment on the prayer space.
So the board met again, this time before an overflow crowd estimated at 250 people. Owners of two businesses next to the store building claimed that worshippers would take up limited parking space in the area, the Courier-Journal reported.
Citing the alleged parking problems, the board reversed itself. Members stressed they weren’t against the Somalis’ faith. Even so, “city officials did field public comments raising suspicions about Islam – both by e-mail and at the … meeting,” the Courier-Journal said.
At the same time, more than a few skeptics suggested religious prejudice – not parking – motivated many people in the crowd, which was all white, or close to it. They applauded the no vote. Some of them brought Bibles. Others wore T-shirts saying, “I’m an American, I believe in the Christian Church.”
“So let me ask you this?” posed Kentucky’s Barefoot and Progressive internet blog. “Do hundreds of people try to pack a zoning commission meeting in a small town at 9:00 in the morning because they are concerned about a tenant’s parking? Does a favorable ruling over parking make them break out in applause? Do people rock back and forth clutching their bible over parking? I believe you know the answer to that.”
Some in the crowd told the local media they would return if the board reconsidered its vote, but nobody spoke against the “mosque” when the board met the third time.
Waldrop and others who voiced opinions said the Somalis had the right to worship just as everybody else has.
Waldrop added that opponents of the prayer space were the minority in Mayfield, the Graves County seat, according to the Courier-Journal.
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After the board voted to disapprove the permit, the American Civil Liberties Union became involved in the controversy. Heather Weaver, an ACLU attorney from Washington, attended the third board meeting. She said the board’s denial of the permit violated federal law. She also pointed out there were plenty of parking spaces at the building and nearby.
In addition, she read a petition signed by 40 Somalis and other people who live in Mayfield and Graves County:
We are residents and citizens of Mayfield or Graves County;
We believe that religious freedom is one of our country’s most fundamental liberties;
We believe that, consistent with America’s promise of religious freedom, people of all faiths should be able to establish a place where they can pray and worship according to their religious beliefs;
We believe that Mayfield and Graves County must continue to adhere to these basic American values;
Therefore, we respectfully request and urge that the Board of Zoning Adjustment approve Conditional Use Application No. 10-003, which seeks permission to operate a Muslim prayer space.
I was glad to sign the statement. So were my wife and our teenage son.
We thank the zoning board for putting things right. We had faith they would in the end. We also share our friend Tom’s belief that the majority of Mayfieldians are fine with the prayer space.
I commute to the community college in nearby Paducah, where I teach history. History teaches that many people have come – and are still coming – to our shores for better economic opportunity, for freedom of worship and to escape political oppression in their home countries. Those are the reasons the Somalis came to our community, and we welcome them.
Ammar Almasalkhi, president of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Kentucky, said the board’s final vote was a “good sign” that the “Constitution and law of the land would prevail over negative feelings of hatred and prejudice,” according to the Courier-Journal.
I’ll add a Presbyterian “amen” to that.
Berry Craig is a native Kentuckian and a professor of history at the West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah.