LEXINGTON, Neb. — The old Longhorn Laundry is an unlikely place for a showdown over the First Amendment.

You could easily miss the nondescript concrete building on a quiet downtown corner of this old cow town.

But ever since a group of Somali workers from the local meatpacking plant spread out a sea of Persian rugs in the expansive former laundry and began holding Muslim prayer services five times a day, there's been controversy.

City officials maintain that mosque leaders are ignoring local zoning laws and thumbing their noses at requirements for building permits and fire-code inspections.

They insist that the flap is about a lack of parking, not a denial of religious freedom, and that it wasn't spurred by "Islamophobia."

"We're not against religion. We're just trying to plan and redevelop that part of our town," said Lexington City Manager Joe Pepplitsch. "It's not a good idea to put a large facility for assembly there. Let's find an alternative."

But local Muslim leaders question why a community that has hosted waves of immigrants seems to be taking such a hard line against them. They had gathered for prayers in two smaller buildings for eight years before expanding into and later buying the larger laundry next door. They see plenty of empty parking stalls nearby at two city-owned lots.

"They're just trying to push us out," said Mohamed Alinor, a 28-year-old Somali who works at the Tyson Foods plant.

The ACLU of Nebraska has stepped in on the side of the Muslims, warning that the city is violating their right to worship.

The battle is now in the hands of the U.S. Department of Justice, which launched an investigation.

City officials had posted notices on the doors of the old laundromat and had asked a local judge to order the mosque out of the building, but recently agreed to hold off on that lawsuit pending the federal probe.

Claude Berreckman, a Cozad attorney who is representing the mosque, says federal law — the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 — plainly states that communities cannot pass zoning ordinances that restrict freedom of religion.

"We have a law that's fairly clear here," Berreckman said. "To me, it's a huge waste of taxpayer dollars to pursue a lawsuit."

* * *

Lexington's long history with immigrants makes it an unusual place for what some see as a cultural clash. Ever since a meatpacking plant opened here in 1990, the central Nebraska community of 10,000 has been a magnet for Hispanics, Vietnamese and other immigrants seeking jobs and a better life.

The town, which is now 60 percent Hispanic, has long had a welcome center to help new arrivals get acclimated. Thirty-two languages are spoken at local schools.

"Diversity's not a new issue for this community," said Barry McFarland, a former school administrator who now helps run a family-owned winery in Lexington.

African Muslims, mostly from wartorn Somalia, started arriving in the mid-2000s. Census estimates put the number of Somalis in Lexington at 769 in 2014 — a 40 percent increase from 2000. Local Somalis and those who work with them say there actually may be 1,500 or more living in the community.

Across Nebraska, census estimates show 2,100 Somali-born residents clustered in Omaha and Lincoln, and near meatpacking plants in Grand Island and Madison, as well as Lexington. Iowa has seen a similar influx, with an estimated 20,000 Muslims now living in the state.

Iowa has another distinction: The oldest continuously operating mosque in the country is in Cedar Rapids.

The migration in Lexington is clearly visible. A handful of Somali-run businesses in the downtown area sit next to Hispanic and Asian stores and restaurants.

There are two mosques. One is next door to the town newspaper. The other, the Islamic Center of Lexington, was located in two small storefronts before expanding next door into the Longhorn Laundry space after it closed last year.

At the sprawling Tyson Foods facility on the south end of town, many of the plant's 2,700 workers are Muslim. Their religion requires short prayers five times a day, and the plant has made accommodations for that, according to a corporate spokesman.

Naji Abdi, who works at Tyson and operates a restaurant a block from the new mosque, said Somalis moved here because the plant allows workers to take time out for prayers.

"Now, we are part of Nebraska," he said.

But local residents and those from elsewhere who work with Somali refugees make it clear that this wave of immigrants to Lexington faces unique challenges.

The Somalis are a different color — black — and worship a religion foreign to this rural area. They are separated from the rest of society in a lot of ways: by language barriers, by long hours in the meatpacking plant, and by tenets of their religion that eschew smoking and drinking. Women are required to cover themselves and pray in a separate room in the mosque.

"They're not going to be your drinking buddy," said Fa'iz Rab, who has worked with Somali refugees as the Omaha-based director of public relations for Lutheran Family Services. "There are some compound challenges they have."

There have been cultural clashes before for Muslims in Nebraska. In 2008, dozens of workers at Grand Island's JBS Swift & Co. meatpacking plant walked out in protest over a lack of accommodations for prayer times during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. After the plant proposed a schedule shift, non-Muslims staged counter protests over the special treatment. Eventually some 90 Muslim workers lost their jobs.

Nationally, a recent wave of Islamophobia has been prompted by atrocities committed by the Islamic State militant organization and the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, according to Abdul Raheem Yaseer, assistant director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

In January, someone wrapped bacon around the handle of the front door of the Islamic Center of Omaha, the largest of four mosques in Omaha. (Muslims are prohibited from eating pork.) It was the fourth time in recent months that vandals had struck the center.

And Berreckman said he's received hate mail and nasty comments on social media because he took the Lexington mosque's case.

Yaseer said that a call by presidential candidate Donald Trump to halt immigration by Muslims has also fueled the flames.

"It's a label put on all Muslims now," Yaseer said, even though mainstream Muslims condemn the violence by a small group of extremists. The word "Islam," he said, means "peace."

"Don't generalize," Yaseer said. "Try to expand your understanding of what mainstream is and what extremism is. There are extremists in every faith."

At Tep's Bar & Grill, which is next door to the mosque in Lexington, a table full of diners wearing cowboy hats and ball caps with livestock logos had little good to say about local Somalis. They described the Somalis as rude, wanting special treatment and hostile toward women.

A waitress said she was harassed by a Somali man when she was taking a cigarette break outside of the tavern. Shelby Holen-Forrester said the man shook his finger at her and scolded her, and made gestures indicating she should wear a covering on her head, as Muslim women do.

"I don't need a head cover and I can smoke. That's my right," said Holen-Forrester.

Abdi, who has served as a spokesman for the mosque, said that he was unaware of such harassment. He told a different story, of how mosque members once helped a drunken man get to a nearby convenience store so he could get some food and sober up.

Many local residents, Abdi said, misunderstand Somalis and their religion. Despite that, he said, the mosque and its members have not seen the anti-Islamic slurs and vandalism that have happened elsewhere in the United States.

"The community, Lexington, I don't think they have that kind of hate," Abdi said.

The problem, he said, is with the city leadership.

The city recently revamped its zoning ordinances as part of an effort to revitalize downtown as a retail and service center, said Pepplitsch, the city manager. As in many communities along Interstate 80, companies and eateries have fled to locations near highway exits, leaving empty storefronts behind along the old brick streets.

To ensure enough parking for the downtown businesses that Lexington wants to attract, one of the zoning changes was to require that churches, nightclubs and other entities that attract large crowds of people obtain conditional use permits and provide off-street parking.

A few years ago, according to townspeople, a Hispanic church had occupied a downtown building for a while, consuming much of the on-street parking during church services.

So when the Islamic Center applied for its permit to use the old laundromat as a mosque, the city asked that it develop 139 stalls of off-street parking for the structure, which was rated to hold 400 people.

Mosque officials objected, saying their facility never holds more than 80 people and that they were being singled out. Berreckman, the mosque's attorney, said there's plenty of parking available already at two public parking lots nearby.

"There's been no evidence presented that the mosque is disruptive to anyone," Berreckman said.

But Pepplitsch said that the city counted 80 vehicles associated with the mosque during a recent midday prayer service on a Friday — the biggest service of the week for Muslims, and the one that both men and women are required to attend — and it was a problem.

The city estimates that, at full occupancy, the mosque's worshippers would take up two-thirds of the parking spots in public lots and on city streets within 300 feet of the building.

"For us, that's not really fair," he said. "This is an area we'd like to see other things happen" besides a mosque or church.

The owner of Tep's, Kristie Teply, agreed. "I don't think a downtown commercial area is the right place for them."

She said she also wondered whether having a mosque there might prevent someone from reopening a now-closed bar on a nearby street; there are state laws restricting taverns from locating near churches.

Pepplitsch said the city offered three different locations in Lexington for the mosque to relocate, including an abandoned lumberyard office just a few blocks away.

But Abdi said the mosque doesn't want to move. It's been located in the same area for eight years, and the location is convenient to other Somali businesses downtown. It's also easily reached by foot — which is how many of the men arrive for prayers.

One of the city's main complaints is that mosque officials have ignored city statutes by occupying the laundry before obtaining a permit, by not obtaining building permits for alterations and by not seeking out a fire inspection.

"It's basically telling us we don't care about your codes," Pepplitsch said.

The mosque eventually did apply for a permit to occupy the laundry, but the city planning board unanimously recommended rejection of that permit. Lexington City Council members, before a packed meeting room, unanimously agreed in December.

Both sides say they'd like to work out something without going to court.

Pepplitsch, the city manager, said the city doesn't oppose the use of the laundry as a mosque if it wouldn't consume so much parking.

Berreckman, the mosque's attorney, said his clients would like to avoid a lawsuit, but doesn't think the city is being fair.

One local minister, Pastor Rex Adams of Calvary Assembly of God Church, said that the city's parking requirements are also causing a headache for his church, located northwest of the downtown area. Paving a new parking lot is expensive, he said, so the church is looking at scheduling a second worship service.

Adams said he sees the mosque flap not as discriminatory but as part of the "growing pains" of incorporating a new and different culture in town.

"We're trying to understand them, they're trying to understand us," he said. "It takes time. And also it takes some effort on both sides."

Contact the writer: 402-473-9584, paul.hammel@owh.com

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Please keep it clean, turn off CAPS LOCK and don't threaten anyone. Be truthful, nice and proactive. And share with us - we love to hear eyewitness accounts.

You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.