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NJ township yields in fight to keep out mosque, pays $3.25M

The Islamic society's legal battle won the backing of 18 religious and civil rights groups that included the Sikh Coalition, the conservative Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the Southern Baptist Convention, along with the liberal Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the American Civil Liberties Union.

In a case alleging anti-Muslim bias that drew national attention, Bernards Township in Somerset County, N.J., has agreed to permit the construction of a mosque that federal prosecutors said it had illegally thwarted for years, authorities said Tuesday.

The affluent township will also  pay $3.25 million to the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge for legal fees the group incurred in challenging the township's repeated denials of its application to build the mosque.

An attorney for the society called the agreement a precedent that should embolden American Muslims and other victims of religious discrimination to stand up for their rights. A national coalition of civil and religious rights organization had supported the society's cause.

"Bernards Township made decisions that treated the ISBR differently than other houses of worship," William E. Fitzpatrick, the acting U.S. attorney for Newark, said in a statement Tuesday. "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."

The society's legal battle won the backing of 18 religious and civil rights groups that included the Sikh Coalition, the conservative Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and the Southern Baptist Convention, along with the liberal Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the American Civil Liberties Union.

In an amicus curiae brief the coalition declared that "such unequal treatment of the mosque in this case represents a potential threat to the free exercise of  each of the amici represented here, and is an affront  to our nation's commitment to religious liberty for all."

The agreement settles a federal lawsuit filed in March 2016, alleging that the local planning board had improperly changed its zoning regulations to bar the mosque from a part of town already home to several churches and subjected the ISBR to years of hearings before denying the application. On Dec. 31, Federal District Court Judge Michael Shipp ruled in favor of the ISBR, and the township entered into the negotiated settlement announced Tuesday.

"We are very pleased with the settlement and look forward to moving ahead  with plans to build the mosque," said Mohammad Ali Chaudry, president of the society and a former mayor of the township. "It has been a long struggle, but we've reached an agreement and we want to put the past behind us."

The township posted copies of the court-approved settlement document on its website without comment and did not respond to requests for comment.

As part of the settlement it agreed that its leaders and township employees would undergo training to better acquaint themselves with the federal laws that bar discrimination in land use and zoning decisions against religious groups. The town's agreement to pay $3.25 million comes in a separate settlement and covers damages and attorneys' fees created by its denial of the mosque's application.

In 2011 the Islamic Society acquired a four-acre plot in the township's Liberty section whose zoning allows houses of worship, and in April 2012 it applied to the planning board for a permit to build a 4,252-square-foot mosque with 50 parking spaces. Soon after receiving the application, however, the planning board adopted a six-acre rule for houses of worship and stipulated that the mosque would need many more parking places than it had required of churches.

During the next three years the planning board held 39 hearings on the application, where some residents voiced fierce opposition to the idea of a mosque in their town, before denying the application in December 2015.

Its actions drew the attention of the U.S. Attorney's Office, which in November filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, asserting that the planning board had adopted procedures "designed to prolong the application review process." These, it said, included allowing opponents to address the board with no time limits, and repeatedly extending the comment period until it had consumed years.

Attorneys for the society and the U.S Attorney's Office also said the township's denials appeared to be based on anti-Muslim sentiment, not the land use public safety claims the planning board made. Township officials vigorously denied that claim.

"This is a small but historically rooted Islamic congregation in this New Jersey suburb," Adeel Mangi, lead attorney for the ISBR, said in an interview Tuesday. "From the outset they just wanted the same rights that have been afforded to every other religious community in town, which is filled with houses of worship."

Mangi, who said he intends to donate his legal fees to charity, praised Chaudry and the membership of the Islamic Society. "They showed tremendous courage by standing up for their rights and taking the battle to court." He said their actions and the outcome will "serve as a precedent going forward that going to benefit Muslims and other victims of discrimination in the zoning process throughout the country."

Morshad Saami Hossain, religious director and imam of the Muslim American Community Association, on Tuesday praised the settlement. He said the actions of Bernards Township sounded reminiscent of the resistance his religious community encountered when it applied to Voorhees Township in 2006 for a permit to convert an abandoned and dilapidated building into a "beautiful" worship site.

"There was a good amount of fear" in the neighborhood," said Hossain, who became imam in 2014 and was not part of the original application process in Voorhees.  "People were saying there would be all these traffic and parking problems." But many in the township also voiced support for their project, he said, including churches and synagogues, "and fought side by side with us."

Hossain said the project eventually won approval, and the association — which typically draws about 300 to Friday Jum'ah or sabbath prayers — is engaged in an expansion project with no opposition. Its members "feel welcome" in Voorhees, he said, and the mosque is home to a variety of interfaith events. "The entire situation brought us together," he said.