The U.S. Department of Justice has filed suit against Bernards Township, Somerset County, alleging that it delayed for nearly four years an Islamic community's effort to build a mosque, and ultimately denied the application out of prejudice against Muslims.
The department asserts in a complaint filed Tuesday that the affluent North Jersey suburb violated federal law by denying approval to the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, saying its planning board applied standards and procedures it had not used in cases involving other religious groups.
"Township officials kept moving the goalposts by using ever-changing local requirements to effectively deny this religious community the same access as other faiths," Paul Fishman, U.S. attorney for New Jersey, said in a statement.
The Islamic Society acquired a four-acre site in 2011, and in April 2012 applied to the planning board for a permit to build a 4,252-square-foot worship facility with 50 parking spaces.
The land was in a residential zone that "permitted the construction of places of worship as a matter of right," the Justice Department said. It asserts that the township later amended its zoning ordinance to thwart the application.
The planning board denied the application in December, the first time it had denied a site plan for a house of worship since 1994.
In a statement four days before the filing, and in apparent anticipation of it, Bernards Township said the planning board's denial "was based on legitimate land use and safety concerns which plaintiffs . . . refused to address."
It called the Justice Department's investigation "inappropriate at best" and said the investigation "raises serious constitutional issues."
Mohammad Ali Chaudry, president of the society, told NJ.com that the federal lawsuit "eviscerates the township's claim that the denial was based on legitimate land-use issues."
"Our community deserves its own place to pray, and we will ensure we get it by standing up for our constitutional rights in court," said Chaudry, a former mayor of the township and a former member of the school board.
The department's complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, says the township violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.
"RLUIPA ensures that municipalities must treat religious land-use applications like any other land-use application," Fishman said.
Passed unanimously by Congress, RLUIPA broadly bars discrimination against the exercise of religion, and specifically prohibits zoning regulations intended to block or burden the placement of houses of worship.
In March, the Islamic Society filed a lawsuit against the township, also in federal court, voicing many of the grievances cited in the Justice Department's complaint.
The township administrator did not return a call Wednesday for comment. Rhonda Pisano, the deputy municipal clerk, said she believed a Friday statement was the most current.
In that statement, the township declared it "strongly believes that the DOJ action is designed to coerce the township to settle in a manner which does not address proper land-use planning."
The statement also said the township had cooperated fully with the Justice Department in the investigation leading to the lawsuit, including turning over 24 years of planning board records and 215,000 pages of documents, but believed the department's motives were "only to support and bolster the ongoing ISBR civil lawsuit."
The federal complaint says that community opposition to the mosque was fierce and that the planning board "adopted procedures that contributed to this unprecedented lengthy application process."
These included allowing opponents to repeatedly address the board with no time limits on their remarks and extending the comment period for years.
The board also required the Islamic Society to create 107 parking spaces - more than double what it had applied for - which forced the relocation of a storm water basin to a buffer zone. It then denied the application because the basin was in a buffer, something it had permitted previously for a church's application.
The board also applied a more stringent code for fire lanes to the mosque's site plan than it had for any previous application of any kind, according to the Justice Department.