Thursday, June 01, 2017

New Jersey township must pay Muslim group $3.25 million for rejection of application to build mosque

An Islamic group is finally able to build a new mosque in New Jersey after 39 public hearings and two lawsuits that dragged out over five years, and the story is a cautionary tale for other communities.

“Municipalities around the country should pay close attention to what happened in Bernards Township,” Adeel A. Mangi, lead counsel for the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, told My Central Jersey. “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.”

Worshipers at the Bernards Township Community Center (AP photo by Julio Cortez)
"On Tuesday, the U.S. Justice Department announced the terms of a settlement between the federal government and Bernards Township, the local body that refused to let the Society begin construction on a proposed house of worship based on alleged issues with minor details of its proposal, including the size of the parking lot," Emma Green reports for The Atlantic.

In addition to allowing construction to move forward, the township must pay the group $3.25 million in damages and attorney fees, and town officials must complete diversity and inclusion training.

While religious discrimination is not unique, this case has been particularly nasty, Green writes. "Before the Society had even filed a formal application, evidence of anti-Muslim bias in the community started emerging. Its mailbox was smashed," Green writes. "A neighbor accosted Mohammad Ali Chaudry, the Society’s president, in a parking lot after a township meeting, saying, 'Eleven brothers died on 9/11 and now you want to put a mosque next to my house with the insignia of the people who did that,' according to a complaint filed against the township by the Society."

Anti-mosque lawn signs and flyers were distributed throughout the town. Negative comments were spread online. Large crowds attended hearings. One community member asked whether the facility would be used for animal sacrifices, according to the complaint.

The township officially rejected the mosque's application in December 2015. In March 2016, the Society sued the township, "arguing that its rejection of the mosque proposal reflected the 'religious and cultural animus against Muslims' on display in Basking Ridge," Green notes. "An uncommonly wide range of religious groups came to the Society’s support—from groups that lean left, like the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the Sikh Coalition, to more conservative groups, including the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention," Green noted.

The Justice Department filed its own suit in November 2016, "alleging that the township had violated one of two core federal religious-freedom laws: the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which prohibits local communities from using vague ordinances and bureaucratic procedures to discriminate against religious groups," Green writes.

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