COVINGTON, Ga. – Nearly a week after the Newton County Commissioners Office passed a moratorium to put a hold on a proposal to build a mosque and cemetery, the public is finally getting the chance to speak their thoughts.
On Monday night, neighbors gathered in front of Newton County Commissioners in Covington for public comment about the plan, one that’s become a growing controversy.
Last week, 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.
County officials said at last week’s meeting they issued the hold because they were not made aware of the plans for the land, owned by an Atlanta-area mosque, but documents showed the initial permit was approved more than a year ago.
The county’s response quickly drew criticism, as did Commissioner John Douglas’s comments. He was quoted by a local paper asking whether there were enough Muslims in south Newton County to support the mosque and if the complex would “make us a prime area for the federal government to resettle refugees from the Middle East.”
Neighbors expressed concerns over the increase of traffic. They were not allowed to voice their feelings on the project last meeting, but they did pack the meeting space.
The did so, again, Monday night, for the town hall meeting and public comment. The meeting, held in two sessions that stretched for three hours, was impassioned.
Based on comments from those in attendance at the meeting, people don't seem to want the plan to proceed more for seemingly religious reasons instead of claimed traffic concerns.
"We have already seen bombings and beheadings," said one woman. "Eight years ago our U.S. government got a Muslim president who has put Muslims in power.”
“It’s hard for people like me, and probably most of you tonight, to draw the line between innocent Muslims and radical Muslims, since they’ve all claimed to serve the same God and they all claim to follow the same book,” said another.
Another woman in the crowd said she had legitimate concerns over the size of the project.
"It really bothers me that I’m labeled a bigot because I just question it," she said. "Because I don’t care if they come and worship, but I do care if it’s a 135 acres of a very large development.”
But probably the most sobering comments came from a woman who identified herself as Jewish. She spoke up and said discussion over the development was necessary, but cautioned against some of the inflammatory comments.
"If this discussion was happening 100 years ago, there’s a good chance it would be happening to my people," she said. "And a hundred years or so ago, millions of people my people, including my great aunt, were sent to their deaths.”