Two months after Bernards Township agreed to a $3.25 million settlement of litigation over its denial of a mosque application, the settlement has been challenged in two suits by a conservative religious group.
One suit by the Thomas More Law Center seeks a declaration that the settlement in Islamic Society of Basking Ridge v. Bernards Township is unconstitutional because it barred the board from taking residents’ comments about Islam or Muslims at a planning board hearing on the mosque application. The group also filed another suit claiming the town’s adoption of the settlement violated the Open Public Meetings Act.
In a suit filed July 31 in federal court, the law center challenges a provision of the settlement barring comments about the applicants’ religion on behalf of Christopher and Loretta Quick, who live next to the proposed mosque site.
The First Amendment suit sought a preliminary injunction barring any restrictions on residents who spoke at the meeting, which was held Tuesday night, but U.S. District Judge Michael Shipp denied the injunction earlier on Tuesday. Bernards Township has moved to dismiss the suit, Quick v. Township of Bernards, and Shipp said Tuesday that he would be setting a briefing schedule on the case.
And in another suit, filed May 25 against Bernards in Superior Court of New Jersey in Somerset County, plaintiff Cody Smith claims that the planning board and township committee voted to approve the settlement before disclosing its terms to residents, in violation of the OPMA. That case was removed to federal court on June 21.
Westfield attorney Michael Hrycak filed both suits on behalf of the law center. According to its website, the group, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, seeks to defend the religious freedom of Christians and expresses the view that Islamic organizations in the U.S. are “waging a stealth jihad within our borders.”
The law center’s website, describing the settlement between the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge and Bernards Township, said that “Instead of standing up to defend its citizens against ISBR’s hate-filled anti-Semitic and anti-Christian bias, the Township colluded with ISBR’s ‘Civilization Jihad’ by capitulating to payment of millions of dollars to ISBR, allowing the construction of the new mosque and Islamic center in violation of zoning codes, and now even suppressing speech concerning Islam or Muslims at a public meeting.”
The religious practices of the Muslim group are relevant because the largest gathering each week is on a Friday afternoon, when the local roads will have heavy traffic, whereas traffic is lighter when Christians hold services on Sundays and Jews hold services on Saturdays, said Jay Combs, senior trial counsel for the law center. The group’s religious practices are also a legitimate consideration in the context of questions raised by some residents about whether the sewer line feeding the site is inadequate in capacity, said Combs.
The group’s website said the ISBR is affiliated with the Islamic Society of North America, which, in turn, has been linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. According to the law center, the FBI has seized documents from that group indicating it seeks to engage in a “grand Jihad in eliminating and destroying Western civilization from within.” Such connections are concerning to the Quicks, said Combs.
“Our clients have a right to voice their legitimate concerns to their elected officials,” Combs said.
Adeel Mangi, lead counsel for the ISBR, asked about the law center’s allegations about the group, said, “ISBR is made up of local residents who have lived in the community for decades and are known for their interfaith work. Far-right extremists’ efforts to smear ISBR speak only to their own twisted and sad mindset.”
Mangi is with Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler in New York, which has also filed suit against Bayonne over another denied mosque application. He noted that Shipp held on Tuesday that the Quick plaintiffs did not have a likelihood of success on the merits when he denied their request for an injunction.
“The Thomas More allegations are manufactured baseless claims generated in an ongoing attempt to block American Muslims the right to worship,” said Mangi.
The latest round of litigation shows Bernards is in a “no-win situation” because even if it wins, the victory will be costly, said Michael Turner, a public relations consultant for the town.
Turner said he could not comment on the two suits by the law center. Conceding that audience members made anti-Muslim comments at hearings for the application, Turner said, “volunteers on the planning board did their best to make sure the public comment was germane to the application and not to anything else. What the public says is their First Amendment right.” Turner also said the filming of those remarks may have added to tension around the application.