The southern cradle of Baptist religious liberty voted last week against religious liberty for Muslims, and thereby, for the prevailing cultural establishment of Christianity.
The Board of Supervisors for Henrico County in Virginia voted 3-2 against a request to rezone property for the building of the first mosque in the Richmond area.
Leaders of the 4,000-member Muslim community had purchased a 3.6-acre site, which had been undeveloped since 1984. They wanted to build a 10,500-square-foot mosque and community center, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
However, Henrico County supervisors agreed with the planning commission, which said that rezoning the site would run counter to the county’s land-use plan.
At the supervisors’ board meeting, the attorney for the Muslims noted that rezoning exceptions had been made for Christian organizations, citing both First Mennonite Church and Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.
One of the three individuals speaking against rezoning was Charlie Rhodes, a resident with an adjacent property, who said, “I personally find the presence of a 25-foot-tall dome structure inconsistent with that of the surrounding architecture, inappropriate and undesirable.”
The Times-Dispatch reported that Imad Damaj, president of the Virginia Muslim Coalition for Public Affairs, said after the decision that the county “missed an opportunity of saying, ‘Yes, we can be inclusive. Yes, we can work with you,’ and go beyond splitting hairs of issues of zoning.”
Another Muslim leader, Mike Surani, said, “We think the decision was blatantly racist and discriminatory.” He said a lawsuit on grounds of discrimination would be filed in U.S. District Court.
A Friday Times-Dispatch editorial criticized the supervisors’ decision: “Would the supervisors have voted differently if the applicants had been Baptist or Catholic instead of Muslim? Maybe not. But a mosque for followers of the Prophet would have been an asset, and the rejection of it is the county’s loss.”
Unreported about the supervisors’ vote was the role played by Baptists, a faith group that historically experienced discrimination in Virginia at the hands of another religious establishment ”the Episcopal Church.
Four out of the five supervisors are Baptists. Two voted against the Muslims; two voted for the Muslims.
Voting against the rezoning request were Richard W. Glover, a member of Grove Avenue Baptist Church, a fundamentalist congregation affiliated with the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia, and James B. Donati, Jr., a deacon at Poplar Springs Baptist Church, a centrist congregation affiliated with the Baptist General Association of Virginia.
Glover led the charge to oppose the rezoning. He, Donati and David A. Kaechele, chairman of the board, formed the majority vote.
Voting for rezoning were Patricia S. O’Bannon, a deacon at River Road Church, Baptist, a centrist congregation affiliated with BGAV, and Frank J. Thornton, a member of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, a congregation affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Virginia.
“I found no reasonable reason to deny the rezoning,” said O’Bannon.
Add to the mix yet another Baptist, who remained publicly silent about what the board of supervisors should do. Virgil R. Hazelett is the manager of Henrico County, the county’s senior staff person, and an active member of Second Baptist Church of Richmond, a congregation affiliated with the Baptist General Association of Virginia.
Baptists split their vote over an issue which essentially centers on the religious majority’s commitment to the religious minority’s right to religious liberty, the right to build a house of worship. Religious discrimination in the United States against Muslims isn’t new. Nonetheless, it is surprising and disappointing when it takes place in the southern cradle of Baptist religious liberty.
Apparently, real Baptists can never do enough education and advocacy for religious liberty.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.