Federal judge says NJ town discriminated against Muslims trying to build mosque
BERNARDS — A church by any other name is still a house of worship — and that includes a mosque, a federal court has ruled.
A federal judge on Saturday said township officials violated federal law and discriminated against a Muslim group that’s been trying to build a mosque in the Liberty Corner neighborhood.
The opinion came down in part to the dictionary definition of "church," which township officials had argued only refers to Christian denominations.
The New Year’s Eve decision delivers a partial but important victory to the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, whose mosque application was denied last year by the township's planning board.
The denial — which came after 39 hearings spanning nearly four years — sparked a federal lawsuit by the Islamic group as well as a Justice Department action against the Somerset County township. Dozens of religious and civil liberties groups joined the Islamic Center's lawsuit.
Officials have defended their actions and denied they were motivated by religious bigotry.
Residents fiercely opposed the application, citing worries about traffic congestion near an elementary school and a fire company. But the Islamic Society’s lawsuit pointed to instances in which it said residents and officials voiced “anti-Muslim sentiment,” including an anonymous flyer asking “Why are so many terroristic acts propagated by Muslims?” and a planning board member's tweet of an article mocking Islam as the “Religion of Pieces.”
Adeel Mangi, the lead attorney for the mosque, called Judge Michael Shipp’s decision a “landmark ruling interpreting the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act that will have national impact in reaffirming that townships cannot treat applicants differently based on their religion.”
The decision overturns the planning board’s interpretation of the word “church” in its parking ordinance as excluding mosques and invalidates portions of the land-use law as unconstitutional.
In this ruling, the judge did not address accusations of overt discrimination or hostility toward Muslims — and the lawsuit continues.
The township’s land-use rules require one parking space for every three seats in a church. The Islamic group initially submitted plans calling for 50 parking spaces, estimating that the congregation would grow to 150 worshipers in five to 10 years.
But the board turned to a 2010 Institute of Transportation Engineers publication on parking, which developed loose guidelines on parking requirements for mosques. The publication’s mosque standard is based on volunteer observations, not any scientific study. Using this as a guide, the board voted to require 107 parking spaces for the mosque. The Islamic group revised its site plan, but not formally, in order to include 107 spaces, but the board rejected the application anyway.
The judge said the township must apply the parking ordinance’s 3:1 parking ratio for the mosque plans.
“Defendants unambiguously treated ISBR’s application to build a Muslim mosque differently than applications for Christian churches and Jewish synagogues,” the judge said. “Defendants’ application of the parking ordinance reflects sufficient intent to discriminate on the basis of religion.”
The judge also said part of the township’s ordinance provides officials “with the ability to manipulate the evidence in the record” and “unlimited discretion to pick and choose what evidence it considers” — including requiring additional parking spaces “without having to abide by any specific guidelines as to what constitutes sufficient off-street parking.”
The judge said these provisions are “unconstitutionally vague.”
In a written statement Saturday, Mangi — of the Manhattan firm Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler — said “this ruling resolves the key disputed land use issues in the case because many of the township’s bases for denial depended on its requirement of a supersized parking lot.”
Township officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
Previously, township officials have criticized the federal government’s investigation as “inappropriate collusion” with the Islamic Society, citing the Islamic group leader (and ex-mayor) Ali Chaudry’s former professional ties to a Justice Department investigator.
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.