A town in New Jersey has settled an anti-discrimination suit with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), ending a years-long controversy over its refusal to grant a zoning permit for a local mosque.
The DOJ brought a case alleging that the Bernards Township Planning Board discriminated against the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge (ISBR) and violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) during a lengthy application process that ultimately resulted in the town’s denial of the proposed project.
The planning board voted to settle the suit and issue the requisite permits during a Tuesday night session. Most details of the settlement have not yet been made public.
The DOJ alleged that the town contrived capricious zoning requirements to block the mosque’s construction for over five years. The township applied fire safety standards to the project that far exceeded those established for similar ventures, changed the number of required parking spots to an arbitrary figure (hindering the mosque’s ability to comply with local lighting and drainage standards), and amended parliamentary rules governing planning board hearings so that supporters of the mosque were granted prohibitively less time to speak in favor of their project.
The planning board also claimed that the mosque’s storm-water management (SWM) plan was inadequate, despite previously approving the project’s SWM proposal.
“RLUIPA ensures that municipalities must treat religious land use applications like any other land use application,” U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said in a statement when the suit was first lodged. “But here, township officials kept moving the goalposts by using ever-changing local requirements to effectively deny this religious community the same access as other faiths.”
Federal officials also recovered evidence in emails exchanged between town officials that they claim reveals a pattern of anti-Islamic bigotry. In one message a planning board official claimed that Islam “owes its size and influence to a tradition from Day 1 of forced conversions through violent means.” Other township officials speculated that former President Barack Obama was a Muslim.
“Man child,” wrote town board member John Carpenter of the former president. “The product of fools, raised by idiots and coddled by affirmative action. Behold the beast.”
“As elected leaders, our goal is to promote the quiet and peaceful use of property for all members of our community,” the town said in a statement. “Settlement, in our opinion and that of our legal counsel, represents the most effective path forward to mitigate the financial risk of protracted litigation as well as resolve the issue of the ISBR’s proposed Islamic Cultural Center and Mosque in Liberty Corner.”
Similar federal suits are pending in Bensalem, Penn. and Culpepper County, Va.
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