Six years after the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge (ISBR) began preparations to build a new mosque in Bernards Township, New Jersey, the group finally has the legal approval to move forward.
Yesterday (May 30), the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the ISBR settled lawsuits with the township that not only allow the group to build—but require the municipality to pay $3.25 million for discrimination.
In 2011, ISBR purchased a single family home on a four-acre lot in an area that was zoned to accommodate places of worship. The organization submitted plans for site approval the following year, and was met with public opposition. In 2013, the township revised its zoning code with new conditions that precluded ISBR from opening the mosque—including doubling the required lot size to six acres and demanding additional parking spaces. Two years later, the municipality’s planning board officially denied ISBR the right to build.
According to the settlement, it was the first denial since at least 1994. Per a statement from the DOJ, the township’s actions violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which is meant to “protect individuals, houses of worship and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning and landmarking laws.”
The DOJ agreement reached yesterday requires the township to let ISBR build the mosque, train officials and employees on the the requirements and non-discrimination policies of RLUIPA, and change the zoning ordinance to remove the additional restrictions that were placed on houses of worship in 2013. The $3.25 million monetary settlement comes from the suit filed directly by ISBR, with $1.5 million of it assigned for damages and the rest for legal fees. NJ.com reports that the law firm will donate the fees to charity.
“Federal law requires towns to treat religious land use applications like any other land use application,” acting U.S. attorney William E. Fitzpatrick of the District of New Jersey said in the statement. “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.”
Township spokesperson Michael P. Turner released a statement yesterday that continues to deny the claims of religious discrimination and assures residents that the settlement payment will be satisfied via insurance, not taxes.
“The Township maintains that the denial of the planning board was based on accepted land use criteria only. 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,” Turner said.
“We are very pleased by this resolution and hope to receive prompt approval to build our mosque,” ISBR president Mohammed Ali Chaudry told NJ.com. “We look forward to welcoming people of all faiths and backgrounds to our mosque.”