A town in New Jersey has to pay an Islamic society $3.25 million in a legal settlement after officials denied approval to build a mosque after 39 hearings that lasted for four years.
In two separate federal lawsuits filed in March and November of 2016, the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge and the Department of Justice, respectively, accused Bernards Township — just 50 miles west of Manhattan — of violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) of 2000.
The lawsuits accuse the town's planning board of having different zoning standards for a mosque compared to other houses of worship.
"What should have been a simple board approval for a permitted use devolved into a Kafkaesque process that spanned an unprecedented four years and included 39 public hearings," the March 2016 lawsuit read.
As part of the settlement with the DOJ, the town has agreed to allow the Islamic society to construct a mosque on its property. The town also agreed to change ordinances to limit the zoning restrictions placed on all houses of worship. The payment includes damages and attorney fees.
"Municipalities around the country should pay close attention to what happened in Bernards Township," said Adeel Mangi, lead attorney for the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, in a statement. "The American Muslim community has the legal resources, the allies, and the determination to stand up for its constitutional rights in court and will do so.” Mangi's also said it will donate $1.75 million in attorney fees to "to a variety of charitable and other worthy causes."
A statement by a spokesperson representing Bernards Township said allegations in the lawsuits of discrimination by the town were false. "The Township denies the claims," the statement read, adding that the decision "was based on legitimate land use and safety concerns."
"We remain a united township where all are welcome. This is the end of a long engagement on the application and opinions may still be varied, but it is in the best
interest of the Township to conclude the litigation,” the statement said of their decision to settle.
Mohammad Ali Chaudry, the plaintiff and president of ISBR, said he was “pleased by this resolution and hope to receive prompt approval to build our mosque." Choudry, who once served as mayor of Bernards Township, also said the mosque's "doors will be open to anyone interested in building bridges to promote harmony in the community and peace in the world.”
During the long application process, where each meeting was widely attended by the public and every aspect of the application scrutinized, the Islamic Society was also subject to incidents of vandalism and social media harassment, according to the group's lawsuit.
Some posts about the proposed mosque on on the internet were titled "A mosque by any other name is still a potential terrorist indoctrination center."
The group also alleges their mailbox was vandalized and the group's name was changed to appear like "ISIS."
Residents complained that the proposed mosque would result in parking and traffic problems, while others said the mosque made them "nervous."
“Federal law requires towns to treat religious land use applications like any other land use application,” Acting US Attorney Fitzpatrick said. “Bernards Township made decisions that treated the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge differently than other houses of worship. The settlement announced today corrects those decisions and ensures that members of this religious community have the same ability to practice their faith as all other religions.”
The township also agreed that their elected leaders and other employees will undergo training on the requirements of RLUIPA. It has also agreed to publicize its nondiscrimination policies and periodically report to the Justice Department on its compliance with the settlement agreement.
RLUIPA was passed by Congress in 2000 and is designed to “protect individuals, houses of worship, and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning and landmarking laws,” according to the Justice Department.
The town's planning board and committee both voted to settle the lawsuits at meetings last week, on May 23.
The amount of the legal settlement was misstated in a previous headline for this post.
Talal Ansari is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. His secure PGP fingerprint is 4FEE 894C 8088 7E08 E170 A515 2801 7CC6 95D3 11C2
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