Bernards Township, NJ. Wikimedia
Bernards Township, NJ. Wikimedia ()

A Muslim group whose application to build a mosque was rejected by the Township of Bernards is claiming in a federal suit that the decision was based on religious animus.

The suit, filed March 10 in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey by the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, says the group’s application to the town planning board spanned four years and 39 “Kafka-esque” public hearings that were marked by hostile comments from residents opposing the plan.

While the application was pending, the town changed the zoning on the group’s property to ensure that it could never apply to construct a mosque upon denial of the application, the suit alleges. A house of worship was a permitted use when the group bought its four-acre site, but the revised ordinance made a house of worship a conditionally permitted use and imposed additional requirements that are difficult or impossible to meet, the suit claims.

The planning board denied approval in December 2015 for a litany of reasons, including concerns that headlights from cars visiting the mosque would be visible from nearby homes, and that the plan did not give adequate access to the site for fire trucks. But the suit lists three non-Muslim religious facilities, two private schools, an animal hospital and a doctor’s office that the plaintiffs claim were held to a less exacting standard by the planning board.

The plaintiffs are the Islamic Society and its president, Mohamad Ali Chaudry, who is a former mayor and board of education member in Bernards. Besides the township, the suit names as defendants the township committee, the planning board and their members.

The suit seeks an order voiding the town’s January resolution denying the mosque’s application, as well as preliminary and final injunctions ordering the town to approve the project. The suit also seeks appointment of a federal monitor to oversee Bernards’ implementation and compliance with the court’s remedial orders and with federal law for five years.

The suit brings four counts for violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, as well as free exercise, equal protection and due process claims under the Fourth and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution. The suit also brings claims under the New Jersey Constitution and charges that the denial of the application was an arbitrary and capricious decision under the New Jersey Municipal Land Use Law.

The suit cites flyers, blog posts and comments at public meetings related to the application that make frequent references to 9/11 and terrorism and accuse Muslims of discriminating against women. While the application was pending, the group’s roadside mailbox was battered and plastered with a sticker reading “ISIS,” according to the suit. A group formed to oppose the mosque, Bernards Township Citizens for Responsible Development, urged members to avoid denigrating Islam itself, and comment only on aspects of the application, according to the suit.

“The opposition to ISBR’s application to build a mosque in the township reflected, on its face, religious and cultural animus against Muslims,” says the suit, filed by attorneys from Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler in New York. “The discriminatory intent was adopted by the board itself and ultimately incorporated into its denial of ISBR’s application,”

The suit says the town’s rezoning of the property while the application was pending is similar to the approach taken in nearby Bridgewater, which was the site of a similar conflict over construction of a mosque.

In Al Falah Center v. Township of Bridgewater, another Muslim group filed a federal suit to overturn the town’s rejection of their mosque plan, which was also greeted with angry protests from local residents.

In the Bridgewater case, U.S. District Judge Michael Shipp of the District of New Jersey enjoined the town from enforcing its ordinance against the plaintiffs and ordered it to resume considering the application. The township sought a stay from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, but the court rejected that motion in January 2014. In December 2014, the Al Falah Center and Bridgewater reached a settlement allowing the construction of the mosque and calling for the town to pay the group $5 million.

Adeel Mangi of Patterson Belknap, who represents the plaintiffs, declined to comment other than to say the complaint speaks for itself.
The mayor of Bernards Township, Carol Bianchi, issued a statement about the suit: “Bernards Township is an inclusive and warm community. The allegations in the lawsuit do not represent our community. It is not unusual for an applicant to appeal a denial, and it is their right. The Planning Board made its decision and now the court will decide whether to uphold that decision. We look forward to a satisfactory resolution of this matter.”

Contact the reporter at ctoutant@alm.com.