NEWARK, N.J. (CN) – Federal prosecutors brought discrimination charges Tuesday against a New Jersey town that denied zoning approval to an Islamic nonprofit looking to build a mosque on its own land.
Capping off an eight-month investigation by the Justice Department, the complaint in U.S. District Court accuses Bernards Township of discriminating against the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge (ISBR) by amendig zoning ordinances to require larger setbacks and dedicated access lanes from state or county roads.
“No congregation of community should ever face unlawful barriers to practicing their religion and observing their faith,” Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta said in a statement.
Tuesday’s complaint under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which prohibits religious discrimination or unjustified burdens on zoning statutes, follows a March lawsuit by the Islamic nonprofit.
ISBR’s 116-page civil lawsuit had also invoked RLUIPA, as well as violations of the First and 14th Amendments. In addition to damages, the society sought an injunction against the zoning ordinance.
ISBR’s members follow the tradition of praying five times a day, as well as the ritual washing of hands and feet before prayer.
Before the zoning feud erupted in 2010, the group had been praying in a rented community center in Basking Ridge but wanted to build a dedicated mosque that could accommodate Sunday religious teaching for children and for Ramadan services.
ISBR’s planned mosque would have included a prayer hall, kitchen and wudu room for the washing ritual, as well minarets resembling residential chimneys along the exterior.
In 2011, the society purchased property on a 4-acre lot in a residential-zoning district of Bernards Township, nearby a fire station, church and elementary school.
Though the township planner gave the green light for construction of a mosque, there was public outcry in 2012 when the society sought plan approval.
The society says protesters began distributing anti-Muslim flyers, denouncing the mosque in online posts and vandalizing its mailbox, in one case changing its abbreviation ISBR to ISIS, after the terrorist group.
Bernards Township’s 11-member planning board, which includes the mayor, held a total of 39 planning meetings over the mosque.
Justice Department attorneys note that at least one of these meetings featured interrogation of ISBR members about where they lived and worked.
When the planning board denied site-plan approval in December 2015, one of the violations it cited was inadequate parking spaces.
Indeed, a traffic engineer whom opponents of the mosque had hired recommended 107 parking spaces, but the Justice Department notes that the township zoning code requires 50 parking spaces for houses of worship.
The planning board also found the site plans did not have a safe traffic plan for children, even though ISBR had submitted a written plan that included a traffic monitor wearing a vest, the government’s complaint states. In addition, the zoning board cited a noncompliant storm water plan and insufficient access for emergency vehicles as reasons for the denial.
The township followed up in 2013 with an amended zoning ordinance that carried new requirements for houses of worship: primary access from a state or county road, and at least 6 acres of land. But prosecutors note that 8 of the 11 existing houses of worship in the township are on lots less than 6 acres.
Bernards Township had responded to ISBR’s lawsuit on Nov. 18 by saying its denial was “based on legitimate land use and safety concerns, which plaintiffs refused, and to this day, refuse to address.”
The township also called into question the Justice Department investigation, citing a prior relationship between ISBR founder Mohammad Ali Chaudry and one of the lead Justice Department investigators on the case, Caroline Sadlowski, who had both served on the board for a Drew University religious center.
“The township believes the investigation is inappropriate at best and raises serious Constitutional issues,” the township said in its Nov. 18 statement. “The actions of the DOJ and plaintiffs may well dissuade residents from participating in future land use hearings for fear of retribution from an applicant and the government.”
Bernards filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act in July, seeking all Justice Department documents related to the township, as well as those involving Sadlowski, Chaudry, and representatives of Drew University’s Center for Religion, Culture, and Cultural Conflicts.
The Justice Department has said the prior relationship between Sadlowski and Chaudry is irrelevant to the lawsuits.
The Justice Department has sued other towns over failing to approve mosque construction. Earlier this year federal authorities filed a complaint against Bensalem Township in Pennsylvania for allegedly denying a mosque in violation of the RLUIPA.
But Muslims are not the only religious groups to spar with towns on zoning houses of worship. In March tensions between New Jersey town Toms River and an Orthodox Jewish group led to a federal lawsuit.