A federal judge has enjoined a New Jersey town from enforcing an ordinance that would have required a Muslim congregation to obtain a variance in order to build a mosque, finding the law could irreparably harm religious practice.
Even if the town could show it was trying to preserve the community’s residential character, it was unlikely to prove the ordinance was the least restrictive way of doing so, U.S. District Judge Michael Shipp held on Sept. 30 in Al Falah Center v. Twp. of Bridgewater.
He also said the town’s swift adoption undermined its claim that it furthered a compelling government interest.
Plans for the mosque were submitted on Jan. 6, 2011. Consultants for the applicant and town agreed it would increase traffic only modestly.
On Jan. 24, 2011, facing an angry crowd of 400, the planning board ordered the town planner to produce a report on traffic caused by houses of worship.
That report, issued two days later, concluded that houses of worship in residential areas could cause traffic problems.
The board adopted the report on Feb. 8, and the township council voted on Feb. 17 to introduce an ordinance mandating zoning variances for houses of worship not on a main road. The mosque site is on a secondary road.
The board endorsed the ordinance on Feb. 28, and the council adopted it on March 14.
The mosque’s supporters did not need a variance when their application was filed but did under the ordinance.
In their suit, the plaintiffs claimed the ordinance was adopted quickly because the Time of Application Law, which said rules can’t change once an application has been submitted, was to take effect on May 5.
The suit includes a count under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging violation of the right to free exercise of religion under the First and Fourteenth amendments.
It also alleges violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 200, the Municipal Land Use Law and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.
Bridgewater moved for summary judgment, saying the claims were not ripe because no variance application had been filed.
But Shipp cited precedent from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit that a final decision is not needed when a landowner challenges an ordinance.
He also found that the residents’ “animus” and the ordinance’s expedited passage create “a genuine issue of material fact such that summary judgment would be inappropriate at this juncture.”
Shipp granted the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction after finding that the ordinance could cause irreparable injury and that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits.
He cited their assertions that the lack of a permanent home for the mosque impedes its growth and its ability to raise money and attract a permanent imam.
Shipp also said the “temporal nexus between the application and the implementation of the ordinance undermines defendant’s claim that the ordinance was in furtherance of a compelling government interest.”
Plaintiff lawyer Peter Zimroth, of Arnold & Porter in New York, says the fast pace of the ordinance’s adoption was key.
“The ordinary process for changing a zoning law takes way longer than what happened here,” he says.
Howard Cohen of Parker McCay in Lawrenceville, who represented Bridgewater, did not return a call.