A New Jersey Islamic group filed a claim back in November against the United States government alleging the town illegally denied its plans to construct a mosque and created impossible requirements for its construction. The group alleged that the town’s planning commission purposely set forth strict requirements for the religious structure that could not be met following biased objections from the public. Opposing residents allegedly vandalized the mosque’s mailbox and changed letters addressed to ISBR to ISIS.
On New Year’s Eve of last year, a federal judge ruled that Bernards Township’s proposed requirement for the mosque to have more parking spaces than churches or synagogues was unconstitutional. This decision was a key turning point in the process. “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,” according to the lawsuit.
The Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, headed by president and former township mayor Mohammed Ali Chaudry, currently holds its prayer services at a rented space in a community center. Leaders spent fours years trying to get approval for a permanent structure to no avail. In 2016, the group filed its lawsuit, which was supported by a multitude of civil rights and religious freedom groups.
The settlement was approved via a 4-1 vote on Tuesday, May 23rd, according to the town’s spokesperson, Michael Turner. Approximately 70 residents were in attendance, including both supporters of of the settlement as well as non-supporters. Details of the settlement will not be made public until the final agreement with a federal judge is filed. Mayor Carolyn Gaziano said this “may be in a matter of a few days.”
Basking Ridge resident Nick Xu was among those present who was furious that officials made the mosque impossible to build and opposed the move to settle. “I think we should still fight,” he said after the vote was taken. “We can’t give up. I have written a letter to the President [Donald Trump] and [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions. The former mayor knows that property isn’t suitable for a mosque, but he wants to make a million dollars. Cases like this are everywhere. This is a systematic plot. This is blackmail.” Xu believes that the only way to discontinue discrimination is to keep fighting for religious rights.
However, there were many present who supported the decision. “I’m very much in support of the settlement,” said Dr. Yasmine Khalli of Basking Ridge, a member of the Islamic Society. “I think it’s time for our town to move on and heal. I think it’s time to build a bridge between neighbors and work together as a whole community.”
Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler, the law firm representing the religious group, filed a separate lawsuit last Thursday against the town of Bayonne, New Jersey, claiming its officials used far-fetched reasons to make the group’s application to build a mosque impossible to approve. The complaint filed against the U.S. government, as well as many similar claims that have been filed across the nation, was based on a federal law which prevents local governments from imposing land use regulations that place undue burdens on the right of religious free exercise.