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NOV 04- NOV 12, 2014

Former Islamic Cultural Center attorney Now supports Islamic Cultural Center As Town Attorney for Wheatfield

By Anna M. Howard

November 04, 2014

Town of Wheatfield Attorney Robert O’Toole supports Muslim group's right to buy real estate in Wheatfield.

The fact that Wheatfield Town Attorney Robert O’Toole is supporting plans for an Islamic Cultural Center and potential mosque at a now-closed restaurant and banquet hall in Wheatfield is unsurprising, given the fact that, back in 2009, he represented mosque supporters as a private attorney when they unsuccessfully tried to open a mosque in the Town of Niagara.

Some of the critics of the soon-to- be-opened Islamic Cultural Center in Wheatfield are saying the problem isn’t that of an anti-Muslim bias, but a conflict of interest on the part of O’Toole.

For 20 years, the Niagara Falls Blvd. building in Wheatfield that the Islamic Cultural Center purchased and hopes to operate, served as a restaurant and banquet hall known as Suzanne’s Fine Dining. The owner, Suzanne Guenther, told the Buffalo News that she and her husband, Kevin, were not looking for a buyer when they received an offer from Iman Amid Agwa, or prayer leader of the only mosque in Niagara Falls, located on Pierce Ave.

The two parties agreed upon a sales price of $666,000.

Town Supervisor Robert B. Cliffe said the town has had complaints from people who do not want the Islamic Center to operate there.

He explained that the Town of Wheatfield legally has no role in approving or stopping the Islamic Center at the site of the former Suzanne’s.

"We follow the constitution," he told one complaining anti-Muslim caller and in general calls those who oppose the sale to the Islamic Cultural Center, based solely on the fact that they are Muslim, "crazies."

Cliffe said he met Agwa's son and is satisfied with the group's peaceful intentions.

Wheatfield Town Attorney O'Toole was equally supportive, defending the right of Muslims to buy property in Wheatfield and operate within the law.

“What we got are calls that were opposed to the center because of who the people are and because of their religion,” O’Toole told the Buffalo News. “There was one call from a person who said he didn’t consider Islam a religion.”

O’Toole, who said he is a lay preacher at local Presbyterian churches, added, “We’re not at war with all Islam. We’re at war with some people who happen to be Muslim who may not have the proper understanding of their own faith.”

Obviously, town officials are right in that the sale of Suzanne's to the Islamic Center was a private transaction and requires no town approval.

The town can't stop the sale. Wheatfield is not within the boundaries of an Islamic-dominated country where the sale to a non-government sponsored religion might be prohibited. This is America, which means Muslims have the same legal right to use real estate they purchase as everyone else.

Agwa made an application to the town Planning Board, which determined, on Oct. 1, that there was no need for an application or a vote under planning or zoning codes.

The Islamic Center’s plan calls for banquets and gatherings similar to Suzanne’s, as well as prayer meetings, teaching people the Islamic religion, giving lessons on the Koran, and the Arabic language - to Muslims and non Muslims, which fall within legally permitted usage of the site.

What has not been mentioned before, and perhaps should be, is that, in 2009, O’Toole lobbied on behalf of the Islamic Cultural Center, as their attorney.

In 2009, the Islamic Cultural Center of Niagara Falls wanted to open a mosque at the old Credit Union building at 2931 Military Road in the Town of Niagara.

Officials, led by then Supervisor Steve Richards, more or less stonewalled approvals.

Unlike in Wheatfield, however, the property in Niagara needed approvals involving rezoning and the issuance of a special use permit.

At that time, O’Toole, as attorney for the group, said the opening of a mosque in Niagara wouldn’t have a negative impact on surrounding businesses or traffic, adding that the Islamic center anticipated only a handful of worshippers attending daily services and less than 20 worshippers attending the main service on Fridays.

“They’re looking to move to a more conducive location,” O’Toole told town of Niagara officials.

Apparently they have found it - in the town of Wheatfield.

Ironically, O'Toole is a transgender lawyer, known for his work in transgender law.

Islam has a dim view of homosexuality and transgender people. In fact, in many Islamic countries, homosexuality and transgender activities are punishable by imprisonment and in some cases the death penalty.

Conversely, in America, a transgender attorney is advocating for freedom of religion and tolerance that would be anathema in every country where Islam holds sway, and here his effort could be seen as deeply, staunchly American.

Suzanne’s has closed and will soon be Islamic Cultural Center.






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