NEWTON COUNTY, Ga. -- A meeting where it was expected that Newton County Commissioners would lift a moratorium blocking plans to build an Islamic mosque has been canceled over safety concerns.
In a statement posted on Newton County's website Monday, commissioners said the decision was made to cancel the meeting after "careful deliberation and consideration of concerns regarding crowd control and law enforcement regarding social media postings evidencing hostilities in the community. "
On Tuesday, Newton County Manager Lloyd Kerr issued a statement saying that a video of a militia group "exhibiting harassing or violent behavior" in a neighboring county circulated on social media. The owner of the video has since taken it down.
"We believe our law enforcement is capable of protecting the citizens of Newton County along with any peaceful protesters," Kerr said.
Members of the Newton County community have been divided over a proposal centering around an Islamic cemetery and possible mosque. It would sit on 135 acres of land on Highway 162 and County Road Line.
Last month, commissioners put a five-week hold on issuing any permits that would allow builders to break ground on the mosque and cemetery. Commissioners also decided to re-evaluate county zoning laws that previously allowed for houses of worship to be built anywhere, regardless of what land was zoned for.
Documents obtained by 11Alive's Chris Hopper showed that Newton County Commissioner John Douglas, who represents the district where the project could be built, believed the Islamic group behind the project tried to mislead the public.
On the initial application for permits, the cemetery and mosque was called “Avery Community Church.” But in email, Douglas wrote that he was looking for ways to “impact” the project. (See more on those emails)
That action was expected to be taken at Tuesday's special meeting.
In a statement released late Monday, CAIR said that anti-Muslim extremists had threatened an "armed protest" outside of the meeting.
"We strongly condemn the anti-Muslim extremists who have slandered, harassed and threatened Newton County's commissioners over the past week," said CAIR-GA Executive Director Edward Ahmed Mitchell in the news release. "These cowardly bigots do not represent the people of Newton County, who are as warm and welcoming as other Georgians."
The statement from Newton County Commissioners Office announcing the cancelation read in full:
"Due to the Chairman and the Newton County Board of Commissioners’ unwavering desire to ensure the orderly and safe assembly of citizens, the decision has been made to cancel tomorrow night’s special called meeting. This decision was not taken without careful deliberation and consideration of concerns regarding crowd control and law enforcement regarding social media postings evidencing hostilities in the community. Newton County will continue in its efforts to encourage citizen participation in government and honoring the County’s intention to work with all members of the community. "
The next regular commissioners meeting is set for Sept. 20. The five-week moratorium would expire on Sept. 21. Kerr said in a statement on Tuesday, "The Board of Commissioners intends to honor the expiration date and has no plans to extend the moratorium."
"The county has assured us that the moratorium will, at the very least, expire naturally on Sep. 21st, allowing Newton Muslims to build a house of worship and cemetery like any other faith group," Mitchell said.