(Brendan Clarey, Liberty Headlines) A New Jersey municipality signed an agreement to pay an Islamic group $3.25 million dollars on Tuesday and promised to change its zoning laws, which concluded two separate lawsuits that were launched after the township denied permission to build a mosque.
Bernards Township signed an agreement Tuesday to pay the millions in damages and legal fees to the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge. The United States Department of Justice also sued Bernards along with the mosque, according to a Tuesday press release from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which supported the Islamic Society with an amicus brief.
In addition to the legal fees, the Township had to amend its constitution to conform to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, or “RLUIPA,” which means that it can’t discriminate against religious practices – especially those covered under RLUIPA, according to the settlement agreement.
“Under RLUIPA, no government, including the Township of Bernards, may apply its zoning or land use laws in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution,” the settlement agreement said. “RLUIPA also provides that no government, including the Township of Bernards, may impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that discriminates against a religious assembly or institution.”
The official settlement comes after a decision on December 31 of last year in federal court which ruled against the township’s treatment of the mosque. Bernards Township voted last week to settle the two lawsuits, according to an NBC report.
“Our constitution guarantees every religious congregation equal treatment under the law,” senior counsel at Becket, Hannah Smith said in a press release. “Every religion is a minority in some part of the country. If one religious group can be denied equal treatment because of hostility to their faith, then all religious groups are at risk.”
The Islamic Society of Basking Ridge bought a 4-acre lot in November of 2011 on Church Street in Bernards, on which to build a mosque, as the group met at the time in a community center, according to the complaint filed by the Justice Department. The complaint also detailed the group’s attention to following the township’s codes and zoning laws in the plans for the mosque. The architect designed the mosque to blend in with the neighborhood, avoiding the traditional dome structure.
Apparently those measures didn’t stop the townspeople and the Bernards’ municipality from opposing the building.
“The mosque proposal met with vociferous public opposition. Flyers, social media, and websites denounced the mosque and were filled with anti-Muslim bigotry and references to terrorism and the 9/11 attacks. On two occasions, the ISBR’s mailbox was vandalized. In one such instance the letters on the mailbox were changed from ‘ISBR’ to ‘ISIS,’” the Justice Department complaint said.
The public opposition soon moved into the local government body responsible for approving the construction of the mosque, and the Bernards Planning Board put the mosque under more scrutiny than other places of worship.
“At the first hearing, Planning Board members asked questions outside the scope of the land use and zoning matters at issue, such as where members of the ISBR lived and worked,” the complaint said. “The Planning Board ultimately held thirty-nine public hearings over three and a half years. The Planning Board had never held such a large number of hearings for any previous site plan application.”
Finally, on December 8, 2015, the board rejected the proposed mosque plans altogether. The Planning Board pointed to parking issues, water drainage, and inadequate fire lanes, but the Board seemed to single out the mosque in these issues where it had not singled out other religions.
“The reasons set forth by the Planning Board for denying the site plan application were pretextual, and the Planning Board in fact denied the application based on discrimination toward Muslims,” the Department of Justice complaint said. “The Planning Board’s denial of the ISBR’s application was influenced by members of the public, who had expressed bias against the ISBR because of its religious beliefs.”
The township settled, but denied that the actions it took against the mosque’s construction were discriminatory, according to a statement on Tuesday by Michael P. Turner, a spokesman for Bernards.
“The Township maintains that the denial of the Planning Board was based on accepted land use criteria only,” Turner said in the press release. “Indeed, Bernards Township is a diverse and inclusive community, where for years the ISBR congregation have practiced their religion along with their neighbors unimpeded, using township facilities at the Bernards Township Community Center and at Dunham Park. Bernards Township elected Dr. Ali Chaudry as the nation’s first Pakistani Muslim Mayor after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. We remain a united township where all are welcome.”