NEWARK, N.J. (CN) – A leafy New Jersey suburb reached a $3.25 million settlement with a group of local Muslims whom it blocked from building a mosque.
Before the zoning feud erupted in 2011, the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge 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.
Though the township planner in Bernards, New Jersey, initially signed off on the 4-acre lot the society bought for its mosque, a public outcry led the township to revise its zoning code while the society’s application was pending.
Both the society and the the U.S. Department of Justice slapped the township with complaints in 2016, about a year after the planning board denied site-plan approval.
Though the planning board had said the society’s blueprints did not include enough parking spaces, the Justice Department noted that it relied on a recommendation of 107 spaces whereas the township zoning code requires only 50 parking spaces for houses of worship.
The township had also amended zoning ordinance to say that houses of worship needed primary access from a state or county road, and at least 6 acres of land, even though eight of the 11 existing houses of worship in the township are on lots less than 6 acres.
Bernards Township’s Planning Board voted on May 24 to settle both lawsuits after a federal judge slammed its discriminatory conduct in a New Year’s Eve grant of partial summary judgment to the society.
The Justice Department publicized the 25-page settlement on Tuesday, noting that the town is allowing the Islamic Society to build the mosque with 50 parking spaces and has agreed to train its officials and employees on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.
In addition to paying the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge $3.25 million, Bernards Township has agreed to amend its zoning ordinance to limit the restrictions placed on houses of worship.
“Federal law requires towns to treat religious land use applications like any other land use application,” Acting U.S. Attorney William Fitzpatrick said in a statement. “Bernards Township made decisions that treated the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge differently than other houses of worship. The settlement announced today corrects those decisions and ensures that members of this religious community have the same ability to practice their faith as all other religions.”
Court filings indicate that the planning board will hold one more meeting to address the settlement agreement and review the society’s application to build the mosque.
The society’s initial application had caused the township’s 11-member planning board, which includes the mayor, to hold 39 planning meetings over the mosque.
Protesters who fought to block the mosque distributed anti-Muslim flyers, denounced the mosque in online posts and vandalized its mailbox, in one case changing its abbreviation ISBR to ISIS, after the terrorist group.
Going forward, the township’s zoning laws that were in effect in April 2012, when the society submitted its application to build the mosque, will govern site-plan approval.