Rabbis in Fairfax County are joining with an area mosque to ask that the county lift zoning rules that limit the number of attendees allowed at
pre-dawn prayer services.
At the heart of the dispute are Fairfax County zoning rules instituted when the McLean Islamic Center opened in 2016. The center is not allowed to have more than 10 attendees at its morning prayer service. In addition, it is prohibited from having any group services from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays.
According to mosque President Sultan Chaudhry, the mosque is challenging the rules after an anonymous complaint led it to stop holding pre-dawn services. The complaint, which was relayed to the center by Fairfax County in February, said that more than 10 cars had arrived for the morning prayer.
“It was not right for us to close our doors after the 10th person arrives. It would not be right for us to make it a private service,” Chaudhry said. “We decided the right thing for us to do as Muslims was to make the heartbreaking decision to suspend the services and
appeal to the zoning board.”
The mosque was the first of its kind in the Reston area. According to Chaudhry, the building had previously served as a church. But, there were no similar restrictions before his congregation moved in. The center is now up to about 100 dues-paying members, and Chaudhry said that much larger churches and synagogues in the area are not subject to
At a Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals meeting Nov. 13, Rabbi Gerry Serotta, executive director of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, said that the mosque has been a partner in a number of interfaith initiatives, particularly alongside Temple Rodef Shalom, which is about a 10-minute drive from the Islamic center. He agreed that other houses of worship in the area don’t face such restrictions.
“The kind of accommodations that they’re looking for from the zoning
authority are perfectly reasonable,” Serotta told WJW.
“They’re wonderful citizens and the restrictions seem fairly arbitrary given that there was a church there before the mosque.”
The zoning board is expected to come to a decision by Dec 12. Chaudhry and Serotta say they are optimistic that it will rule in favor of the mosque. But, at the zoning board hearing, neighbors said that people going to and from early morning prayer are noisy and disruptive at times, even after the mosque added trees and other sound barriers to try to limit the impact on nearby residents.
Before it moved into its current location, the mosque attracted 10-12 pre-dawn worshippers, Chaudhry said. So, initially, the congregation thought the restriction wouldn’t be onerous. But the services now attract up to 30 people. Still, Chaudhry said they don’t bring too much noise.
“When people come for prayer, they’re there to reflect, they’re there to pray,” Chaudhry said. “They’re not there to cause a scene or to rev their engines. It’s a peaceful time in the lives of out members.”
Rabbi Jeffrey Saxe and some 15 other Temple Rodef Shalom members attended the zoning board hearing. In his remarks to the board, Saxe highlighted the work the two congregations have collaborated on, like organizing medical clinics and food drives in the area.
When the mosque was undergoing renovation, the Reform synagogue opened its building for Ramadan services. Chaudhry and Saxe received the Interfaith Conference’s “Bridge Builders Award” this year.
“As a leader of a religious community myself, I have never seen a religious institution asked to limit its use, or its parking, to such an extreme degree,” Saxe told the zoning board. “If we were asked to limit ourselves to a small number of worshippers attending services … we would have a very hard time with that. … At a certain point, we have to ask ourselves what is a reasonable restriction to place on a mosque, church or synagogue.”
Chaudhry said the show of support from Rodef Shalom and the interfaith community in general has been “inspiring.” He doesn’t believe the zoning board has an anti-Muslim bias. He’s not so sure about some of the center’s neighbors.
“As Muslims, we are commanded to have a special relationship with our neighbors, to be at their service and to help in their times of need,” Chaudhry said. “But when people are standing at the podium and complaining that they do not feel safe because there are cars or Muslims locking their cars is too noisy, I don’t understand. I don’t understand how the county can say it’s illegal for a Muslim to lock their cars before 7 a.m. but it’s not illegal for anyone else in the neighborhood. We drive the same cars as they do.”