For years, lawsuits say, Muslims looking to build Bernards mosque faced discrimination
BERNARDS — The township Planning Board's decision to deny a Muslim group's plans to build a mosque is now the subject of a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit alleging township officials engaged in religious discrimination.
Months before the federal action, the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge had filed its own lawsuit in federal district court.
The group had sought to build a mosque that would accommodate up to 150 people on a 4.3-acre tract of land in the township's rustic Liberty Corner neighborhood.
The group purchased the property in 2011 for $750,000. The Planning Board proceedings dragged on for four years and for more than three dozen meetings, after which the board rejected the application in December 2015.
Because the township changed its land use ordinance after the mosque had submitted its proposal — a change that doubled the required minimum lot size for a religious facility from three acres to six acres, increased parking standards and required primary access from a state or county road — the Islamic group was unable to resubmit a new proposal for the same property.
The stricter standards had not been applied to previous religious facilities.
U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said Tuesday that township officials "kept moving the goalposts by using ever-changing local requirements to effectively deny this religious community the same access as other faiths.”
In its own lawsuit, the ISBR argued it was treated unfairly throughout the application process, detailing dozens of alleged incidents it says demonstrate a bias against either Muslims, or the application.
In a section of the lawsuit describing what the ISDR called "board views regarding Islam and ISBR's mosque," it alleges a then-board member privately told a friend that the mosque would “never get built" — though it doesn't name that friend, and though that board member was no longer on the planning board when a vote eventually took place.
This affluent Somerset County might not seem like it would be a hotbed for the alleged anti-Muslim bigotry. Voters here elected the Islamic group's leader — Ali Chaudry — as the township's mayor following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Chaudry, a former AT&T CFO, served two three-year terms from 2002 to 2007 and was considered the nation's first Pakistani-born mayor.
Opposition to the proposal was led by a group of residents calling themselves the Bernards Township Citizens for Responsible Development, which specifically argued on its website that its concerns were not motivated by bigotry.
The December 2015 Planning Board vote happened a day after then-presidential candidate Donald Trump — whose Trump National Golf Club is just a short drive away in Bedminster — first issued his controversial proposal to ban Muslims from entering the country. Even though Bernards, a mostly white municipality of 27,000 residents, is largely Republican, Trump lost the town to Hillary Clinton by about 100 votes.
The Bernards Township Committee on Tuesday fired back against the Justice Department, saying that the investigation was biased and "is inappropriate at best and raises serious Constitutional issues."
The committee "maintains that the Planning Board denial was based on legitimate land use and safety concerns which Plaintiffs refused, and to this day, refuse to address."
The committee also argued that the federal investigation "was not conducted in an objective manner designed to seek the truth, but rather only to support and bolster the ongoing ISBR civil lawsuit."
It points to Chaudry serving with Justice Department investigator Caroline Sadlowski on a Drew University board and communications by the mosque's attorney with the Justice Department before the board's decision as evidence of the federal government's "inappropriate collusion" with the Islamic group.
The committee also slammed the Islamic group's lawyers in their lawsuit for subpoenaing private citizens who had testified before the Planning Board.
"Among various concerns, we anticipate that the actions of the DOJ and Plaintiffs may well dissuade residents from participating in future land use hearings for fear of retribution from an applicant and the government," the committee said.
Below are some examples of opposition the Islamic Society said, in its own lawsuit, it faced over the years — many of them examples of alleged anti-Muslim bigotry. The lawsuit argues that from an early stage, it "became clear that opposition to the ISBR's mosque proposal was substantially grounded in anti-Muslim sentiment," and that it was treated unfairly throughout the process.
• An anonymous flyer that circulated in town stated: “Let’s ask [Plaintiff] Ali [Chaudry] about those Koranic verses regarding Jews and Christians in your Koran. Why are so many terroristic acts propagated by Muslims? Is it something they are taught in your mosques and at home? And what will you teach in your new Liberty Corner mosque?”
• A volunteer firefighter told Chaudry: “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.”
• A real estate agent not named in the lawsuit revealed to a couple who she did not know was Muslim that she was opposed to the mosque because “Muslim people are terrorist [sic] and once they build the mosque, it will not be good for the community.” The real estate agent reportedly explained that “we can’t openly oppose the mosque construction, because it will be considered Racist [sic].”
• Planning Board member John Malay, who served as mayor in 2015, referenced Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson’s stated qualifications for a Muslim to serve in high office in a post on social media platform Twitter: “#TenLittleIndians Ben Carson: ‘I’d accept a Muslim President if he rejected Islam, owned a dog, drank beer, let his wife boss him around.’”
• Malay also tweeted a photo of a person in an explosion linking to an article mocking Islam as the "Religion of Pieces." Malay's caption on the photo was “The Headless Imam."
• On Jan. 13, 2012, someone knocked over and stomped the Islamic organization's mailbox.
• On Sept. 20, 2014, someone vandalized the same mailbox, changing the letters of ISBR to read "ISIS."
• In August 2015, Chaudry was physically intimidated in a restroom during a break at a Board hearing. A mosque opponent claimed that Chaudry would put recordings he had made of the Board’s public proceedings “up on radical Islamic websites.” The incident was reported to police.
• A message shared with members of the Bernards Township Citizens for Responsible Development warned: “Please remember do not make any comments about the Religion or Islamic Mosque itself!! If we do so we will loose [sic] the battle."
• An objector revealed in a blog post: “Our goal is to force the township planning board to put a stay on the decision, order new studies, and drag the issue into Neverland . . . . Will our opponent be able to survive the wait? Will there be greener grass elsewhere . . . .”
• Lori Caratzola, an objector to the mosque who attended most, if not all, of the Planning Board meetings regarding the mosque even though she lived miles away, questioned mosque witnesses at an August 2012 meeting about whether the property would be used for animal sacrifices, saying that “100 billion animals are sacrificed in the name of Islam in the United States every year.”
• In response to an Aug, 9, 2012, Patch article, Caratzola commented: "Remember the Imam of the Passaic County mosque is wanted in Israel for being a member of Hamas and is on the Homeland Security’s deportation list [...] Chaudry said they would have lecturers and visiting imams. So, we really don’t know who he’ll be inviting into the community."
• Caratzola posted on an online article: "There’s a lot of important information we’re not allowed to present. For instance, Chaudry is a proponent of Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). . . . ISNA is a front for the Muslim Brotherhood . . . also learn about the Muslim practice of “taqiyya,” deceit, condoned and encouraged in the Quran."
She continued: "As we sit in our homes this morning, people (Muslims, too) are being raped, tortured, and killed in the name of Islam. I can tell from your comment that you understand. Please attend all Board meetings and join the mailing list at www.btcrd.org to receive update. Have a nice day. : )"
• A comment on a 2012 Patch article: “Don’t you realize that the goal of Muslim radicals is to TAKE OVER THE WHOLE WORLD and enforce Sharia law! Are you THAT misinformed!? Do your homework! When radical Islam realized they couldn’t win by turning planes into missiles, they are now choosing the way of INFILTRATING our country . . . you are really naive to think this is not their mission.”
• Also on Patch, a commenter falsely claimed: "When Ali Chaudry was in office the [Board of Education] did not allow a moment of silence for the victims on 9/11."
• Another online comment: "The Mosque discriminates women [sic]. Women are not allowed to prayer [sic] with the men. Ali Chaudry said at the meeting he is abiding by the laws and constitution of the US. . . . I can prayer [sic] at any church in this town whether it be Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, etc and not be turned away. Why would we want a mosque in Basking Ridge for a religion that discriminates [sic] women praying with men."
• Another online comment: "[A]s a woman, I have an issue with any institution that treats its women unfairly. I’m glad that I looked into this matter and intend to attend the upcoming meeting on September 4th. If anyone knows where to get the ‘preserve liberty corner’ sign, please let me know. I will proudly display it on my property."
• During an October 2012 Planning Board hearing, officials heard testimony that the Islamic group's members are a “different kind of population instead of the normal Judeo-Christian population.”
• On the website BareNakedIslam.com, on which Caratzola posted, a picture of the mosque property appeared below a flaming skull with the slogan “It isn’t Islamophobia when they ARE trying to kill you." The site headlined news about a Planning Board meeting with “A mosque by any other name is still a potential terrorist indoctrination center.”
• In September 2014, after the use of a fence in the site plans was addressed at a Planning Board hearing, a community member was heard stating that she would “rather look at a fence than a mosque.”
• In 2015, a community member explained to the Board that “[t]he appropriate strategy I would argue for anyone moving into a community is to assimilate into that local society without unduly impacting the character of the community. I worry about future congregants and how they will behave. . . . We have already seen some strange, aberrant behavior from [mosque] supporters . . . .”
• In April 2013, a TV news reporter noted that while none of the residents who opposed the mosque at Board hearings would say so on camera, they “indicated that in light of extremist actions since 9/11, some of them wouldn’t feel comfortable with a mosque in their town.”
• At a Planning Board hearing, the husband of one of the anti-development group's founders questioned the Islamic group's affiliations, prompting to Chaudry to dispel any notion that the mosque would be funded by suspicious organizations.
• In July 2014, a neighbor of the proposed mosque site erected a sign that read: “No Mosque Here” and “5 Times A Day Every Day.”
• After the application was denied in December 2015, The Bernardsville News reported on online reaction to the denial, which included comments such as: “You’re probably not ready for courses in Sharia Law at this point.” "Stand behind Trump and his ‘banning’ of Muslims from our America!" “Thank you planning board – let them build it in the Great Swamp at low tide.” And “Kudos to you Bernards Twp. Let them go elsewhere.”
• A resident at the meeting was quoted by the press as saying: “Yes I’m happy. I wish them the best of luck and hope they find a property with six-plus acres to build. Or I hear they are building a mosque in Bridgewater, they can go there.”
• Days after the Planning Board denied the application, a sign on the proposed mosque property that read “Proud to Be an American” was turned around so that it would not be visible from the street.
Clarification: This story's headline and wording have been adjusted to make clear not all alleged incidents described in the ISDR's lawsuit, and summarized here, were explicitly described by the ISDR as instances of bigotry.
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-438-1015 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.