Sunday, September 29, 2013

Street Name Hampering Religious Rights?

On Sunday, September 22, 2013, the leaders of a mosque in the city of Paterson, New Jersey filed a federal lawsuit against their councilman, Mohammed Akhtaruzzman, for violating their right to freedom of religion, as granted by the First Amendment. Akhtaruzzman wished to rename the street on which the mosque resides in honor of a recently deceased member of this Islamic group. The mosque leaders viewed this as a violation of Islamic law, which is based on equality of all men.
The street name change was intended to commemorate Alhaj Forman Ali for his contributions to the Islamic Foundation of New Jersey, but Akhtaruzzman did not realize the controversy it would cause. The mosque leaders found fault with the city officials for failing to notify them of the proposed street name change. Members of the mosque argued that the naming of the street after one person “taints the Mosque as a place of worship where all men are deemed equal.” As a result, they believe members will leave this mosque and find a new place of worship. The leaders contend that the religious inequality that would derive from the changing of the street name would cause a serious decrease in support for the mosque, and ultimately would no longer be used for worship.
Ali’s family believes that the opposition to the street name change is out of jealousy, and Forman Ali should be recognized for his contributions to the religion. They argue that the street is not the property of the mosque, and therefore the mosque leaders should not have influence on what it should be called.
On Tuesday, the controversy was settled with a compromise. After witnessing the outrage that resulted from his wish to change the street name, Akhtaruzzaman agreed to change the street name to be in honor of Jalalabad, which is the name of the mosque, and also the name of the region in Bangladesh from which many of the citizens of Paterson have come.

Members of the Bangladeshi community at the Paterson City Council on Tuesday.
Members of the Bangladeshi community
at the Paterson City Council on Tuesday.
Had Councilman Akhtaruzzman not agreed to the compromise, who should have won the dispute? The mosque leaders believed the street naming would be in contention with their Islamic beliefs, and ultimately prohibit their free exercise of that religion. But does the changing of a street name really hamper their ability to practice their Islamic religion in that mosque?
In my opinion, I would side with Akhtaruzzman and Forman Ali’s family. I do not see how the change in a street name could really deny the members of the mosque their ability to exercise their religion freely. The name of the street is not a reflection of the mosque that was established there. It was a decision made outside the religious sphere of the mosque. I think the idea of the name change was a way to commemorate this respected person in a way that is independent of the religious foundation. This change would not directly hamper the members of the mosque from their religious practices. No restrictions would be put on the use of the mosque, so practices would most likely go on as they have done so before. The street is not the property of this mosque and encompasses all other buildings and organizations on that particular road. Therefore, it is not directly and only associated with the mosque. It is hard to believe that the name of a street would have such drastic consequences for the general religious support of the mosque. The changing of the street name to one individual does not represent the mosque’s decision to hold one person above other members of the religion. Therefore, members will not be dissuaded to attend or support that mosque based on its street name. The mosque leaders were likely not notified of the plan to change the street name because the councilman viewed it as a small change that would have little to no effect on the organizations situated on that street. Whatever name the street is given will not alter anyone’s opinion of the mosque.

If councilman Akhtaruzzman had wanted to change the name of the actual mosque to honor Forman Ali, I would clearly see the contention with the Islamic beliefs. But seeing as it is the street name, and not a direct association of the mosque, I do not see how the argument for the prohibition of religious free exercise can be justified.


Sayeh B said...

I completely agree with Maddie in this case. I do not understand how changing the street name - which is not owned by the mosque or by the people who choose to worship there - would burden their right to freely exercise their religion. While they may argue that it would decrease attendance to services, I find it hard to believe that people would stop worshipping there because they thought that honoring one man was not adhering to their faith based on equality of all men. Of course I am no expert on this religion, so I couldn't say that with complete certainty. But as far as the law and the constitution are concerned, I think Councilman Akhtaruzzman had every right to change the name of the street (which belongs to the state, not the worshippers of the mosque). He is not doing anything to directly hinder the people's ability to practice their religion, and so I do not see his actions as impeding their right to freely exercise their religion.

Maggie S. said...

I agree with Maddie and Sayeh that it is not a burden to their free exercise since the street is not property of the mosque. If the name change happened around the corner, would it matter then? It is impossible to please everyone in a community, and the councilman is an elected official who is supposed to use his best judgment to represent his constituents. If he felt the name change was appropriate, then he should have done it, though I'm glad compromise was reached. I don't think free exercise was in question, streets are public property and they should be named free from any concerns about religion.

Mike Spear said...

The street is maintained by the state and it should be completely up to the state to decide what its name should be. I admire the communities religious belief and humility, however it is not a religious matter. The community has every right to protest, but no constitutional freedom can get them out of this jam. I agree with Maggie, a compromise was ray of hope in the ongoing secular v. religious grudge match.