Seattle mosque will be venue for Mayor Murray’s city address

Feb 13, 2017, 4:13 PM | Updated: 5:45 pm

Seattle mosque...

Ed Murray givves the 2016 state of the city speech in the council chambers. (City of Seattle)

(City of Seattle)

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray is expected to give his state of the city speech this month, but this time in a place of worship.

Mayor Murray will deliver the address at 9:30 a.m., Feb. 21 at the Idris Mosque in North Seattle. This will be the first time Murray has given the official address outside of the council chambers at City Hall. The city council will also hold a special meeting at the mosque.

Related: Gig Harbor faces legal challenge over church-state controversy

In a press release announcing the address, the city commented on the fact city business will be conducted in a place of worship.

Both the City and Idris Mosque are committed to the American ideal of separation of church and state. With this address Mayor Murray and Council are standing with Seattle’s Muslim community in their house of worship as we fight state sanctioned discrimination by the Trump Administration. Throughout its history Seattle has stood with communities facing persecution from the government, including during the civil rights era at Black churches.

In its statement, the city acknowledges the issue of the separation of church and state. And while the council will gavel in at the Seattle mosque, no city business or decisions will be conducted in the venue. The argument, however, doesn’t hold up according to the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

“The balance here seems to be a little off,” said Sam Grover, staff attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation. “There’s no good reason to force people who want to participate in an official government function to attend a place of worship, whether it be a mosque, church, synagogue, what have you. There’s no reason to do it, and it risks the appearance that the government favors one religion over others.”

“It is absolutely within the government’s purview to protect citizens from religious discrimination,” he said. “It does not violate the establishment clause to have everyone be treated equally. We absolutely stand with Mayor Murray for coming out against discrimination against Muslims. What is potentially problematic is the way this message is being delivered.”

MyNorthwest reached out to the mayor’s office for further comment on the issue. City representatives did not comment beyond what is in the press release. A representative, however, did note that city officials have held functions at places of worship in the past. They pointed to one such 2015 meeting at the University Christian Church Social Hall. That meeting was a public hearing for the town hall committee and transportation committee. Another example was a 2013 meeting to discuss micro-housing at Seattle First Baptist Church on First Hill.

City address at the Seattle mosque

The city has instructed attendees to abide by traditions common to such places of worship, such as taking off shoes or wearing shoe covers. No food or drink other than water is allowed in the building.

In recent years, the Idris Mosque has been the target of a variety of anti-Muslim threats. Other mosques in the region have also experienced threats, vandalism and even fire. Seattle police recently increased their presence around the mosque after an increase in threats against the Islamic community around the world.

The mosque was built in 1981 and is commonly noted as the first such mosque constructed in the Arabesque architecture style west of the Mississippi River.

Church and state

The separation of church and state — phrasing made popular by Thomas Jefferson — stems from the First Amendment, which states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”

Murray’s state of the city address is official city business, not to mention that the special council meeting is taking place in a religious building. A potential issue is creating the appearance of a preference for one religion over another, which is illegal, according to Grover.

“The mayor here risks creating the appearance of a preference for the Muslim community over the Christian community, Jewish community, or the atheist/agnostic community,” Grover said.

From Grover’s legal perspective, he alleged that it could be illegal “for the city to entangle itself with a religious message.”

“We understand there’s a larger political message the mayor is trying to convey in standing with the Muslim community,” he said. “It’s fine for the mayor to come out against discrimination based on religious status. That said, it is still inappropriate for a city event to be held at a place of worship. It would be much more appropriate for the mayor to conduct city business on official city property.”

This is not the first time the Freedom From Religion Foundation has commented on church and state issues in Washington. Gig Harbor was recently targeted over similar controversy. Lawyers from the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the First Liberty Institute are battling over whether an unlicensed nativity display — around Christmas time — on public property violates the separation of church and state.

Separately, but related, a Bremerton football coach was fired in 2016 after he refused not to pray with football players following games on the field. He has sued over the controversy. He argued his First Amendment right is to pray. The opposite argument is that his position as a public employee draws a line between his personal free speech and his representation of a public entity — in this case a public school.

The Bremerton controversy drew the attention of the Satanic Temple of Seattle, which used the issue to bring its own religious activities to the school. The Satanists have also focused their energy on local schools that have allowed an evangelical bible club to use public school facilities.

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