Friday, June 9, 2017

New Jersey town agrees to allow construction of mosque

YAHOO
Muslim leader Ali Chaudry (center) addresses the media.

 IT TOOK SOME arm-twisting, but a New Jersy town's effort to stymie the construction of a mosque has come a halt after a six-year bureaucratic battle that wound up in the courts.

The U.S. Department of Justice May 30 announced an agreement with Bernards Township, New Jersey, to resolve allegations that the Township violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) when it denied zoning approval to allow the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge to build a mosque. In a separate agreement between the Islamic Society and the Township, the Township agreed to pay $3.25 million in damages and attorney’s fees.
The lawyer who represented the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge applauded the settlement. “Municipalities around the country should pay close attention to what happened in Bernards Township,” said Adeel Mangi 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.”

“Bernards Township made decisions that treated the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge differently than other houses of worship,” acting U.S. Attorney William Fitzpatrick of the District of New Jersey said in a statement. “The settlement ... corrects those decisions and ensures that members of this religious community have the same ability to practice their faith as all other religions.”


The agreement also resolves allegations that, while the zoning application was pending, the Township revised its zoning code to unreasonably limit any house of worship from building in the Township.
The agreement resolves a lawsuit the DOJ filed in November 2016, after the Islamic Society applied to build on property owned that permitted places of worship as-of-right. A separate agreement resolving a similar lawsuit brought by the Islamic Society against Bernards Township has also been reached.

Rendering of proposed mosque in Barnards Township, NJ.
The U.S. Department of Justice complaint alleged that Bernards Township discriminated against the Islamic Society based on its religion and the religion of its members when it denied the zoning application; applied standards and procedures on the Islamic Society that it had not applied to other religious and non-religious assemblies in the past; and imposed a substantial burden on the Islamic Society’s religious exercise. The DOJ also alleged that Bernards Township’s revised zoning code imposes unreasonable limitations on all religious assemblies in the Township, in violation of RLUIPA.

“Several New Jersey Muslim communities have been targeted by local anti-Muslim opponents to new mosque construction who attempted to hide their bigoted intentions behind zoning technicalities,” said  James Sues, Executive Director of Council of Arab-Islamic Relations-NJ. “In the case of Basking Ridge, these intentions were plain to see once this case went to court. We hope this case sends a message to other communities that freedom of religion is a guaranteed constitutional right, and that the Muslim community is prepared to rigorously defend its rights."

As part of the agreement, Bernards Township will allow the Islamic Society to build the mosque. The Township also has agreed to provide training on the requirements of RLUIPA to its officials and employees and publicize its non-discrimination policies, among other remedial measures. Additionally, the Township will amend its zoning ordinance to limit the zoning restrictions placed on houses of worship.


Township spokesperson Michael P. Turner released a statement 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.”
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