The city of Bayonne, New Jersey, has agreed to a $400,000 settlement of a suit claiming it denied a zoning variance for construction of a mosque based on anti-Muslim bias.
The signed settlement agreement, filed in U.S. District Court in Newark on Wednesday, calls for the city to pay $120,000 to the plaintiff group, which went under the name of Bayonne Muslims, and $280,000 to the law firm that represented it, Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler of New York.
The agreement settles the claim of a Muslim congregation that the city’s denial of its variance application to convert a vacant industrial building to a mosque imposed a substantial burden on its religious practice in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. But it’s unclear whether the settlement will impact a separate investigation of the city’s actions by the U.S. Department of Justice. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the status of the investigation.
The suit claimed that city officials turned down the group’s variance application after a series of public meetings on the application where objectors waved signs saying “Stop the Mosque” and told residents to go back where they came from.
Under terms of the settlement, the city zoning board will hold a hearing to vote on the mosque application no later than 30 days after the settlement’s effective date, which was Wednesday. The city can hold only one hearing and must continue until final deliberations and a vote by the zoning board, even if the meeting extends after midnight, the settlement states.
Under the agreement. former U.S. District Judge Joel Pisano was appointed to resolve any future disputes concerning additional approvals to be granted by Bayonne.
The settlement calls for city officials to cooperate with the defendants as they obtain approvals for the mosque and prohibits retaliation against the plaintiffs. The court will retain jurisdiction in the case until a certificate of occupancy is granted.
The attorneys for plaintiff Bayonne Muslims, Adeel Mangi and Muhammad Faridi of Patterson Belknap, said in a statement about the settlement, “American Muslims around the country are standing up for their constitutional rights in the face of discrimination and bigotry and winning. Municipalities that give in to local hatred and treat Muslims unequally should know that they will be held accountable and will face the full weight of the law.”
Abdul Hamid Butt, president of Bayonne Muslims, said in a statement, “We are so grateful for the support of so many of our fellow Bayonne residents through this long struggle and we commend the City of Bayonne for moving now to correct the wrong that was done to Bayonne’s Muslims. We are confident our application, considered on its merits, will be approved and we look forward to welcoming Bayonne residents of all faiths to the City’s first mosque.”
Bayonne Muslims purchased the property and applied for a zoning variance in 2015. In March 2017, the zoning board denied the mosque application, and two months later the plaintiffs filed their suit in U.S. District Court.
Bayonne is not the first New Jersey municipality to pay the price for denying land use applications for mosques. In 2017, Bernards Township agreed to a $3.25 million settlement over a mosque that was denied approval, and in 2014 Bridgewater agreed to a $5 million settlement for a similar case. The plaintiffs in the Bernards case were also represented by Patterson Belknap’s Mangi and Faridi.
The Bayonne city government was represented by Anthony Seijas of Cleary, Giacobbe, Alfieri & Jacobs in Oakland, New Jersey. He did not return a call requesting comment about the settlement.