Islam in America: New Jersey Township That Discriminated Against Muslims Must Pay $3 Million

Mohammad Ali Chaudry, president of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge and plaintiff in a lawsuit against Benards Township, at the site of the proposed mosque. Photo courtesy Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

Updated | The Muslims of Basking Ridge, New Jersey, needed a mosque. The closest mosque was a 25-minute drive away, too far for attending daily prayers, and the community center the congregation rented for Friday afternoon worship was not oriented toward Mecca and lacked a minaret.

So the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge in 2011 bought a 4-acre lot on Church Street with plans to build a mosque there. Situated 30 miles due west of New York City, the property was especially desirable to the Islamic Society because it was zoned for places of worship, and the town planner said he didn't foresee any problems with the construction of a mosque.

But when the Islamic Society submitted plans to Bernards Township for a 4,200-square-foot mosque, complete with discreet minarets that looked like chimneys, the local community erupted in anti-Muslim opposition to the plans.

"Flyers, social media, and websites denounced the mosque and were filled with anti-Muslim bigotry and references to terrorism and the 9/11 attacks," said court papers filed by federal prosecutors. The Islamic Society's mailbox was vandalized, with the letters on the mailbox changed from "ISBR" to "ISIS."

Almost four years later, and after 39 public hearings—more than the township had ever held for any such submission—the township rejected the application.

"The reasons set forth by the planning board for denying the site plan application were pretextual, and the planning board in fact denied the application based on discrimination toward Muslims," read a lawsuit filed by federal prosecutors with the U.S. Department of Justice, which sued Bernards Township in November 2016.

"People were treating the Muslims in Basking Ridge as a Ffth column that was going to take over the town," Nadim Ahmed, a member of the congregation there, tells Newsweek. "It was ridiculous. We make up less than one percent of the town."

The central issue in the case was that the township ordered the mosque have 107 parking spots, instead of the 50 spots it usually required for houses of worship based on a ratio of spots to members of one to three.

A lawyer for the township admitted in a hearing that the planning board applied a different standard to the mosque.

"Are both synagogues and mosques considered churches under the definitions that the township operates under?" a federal judge asked, according to The New York Times.

"No," the lawyer answered.

The prosecutors accused the township of violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which protects religious institutions from discriminatory land-use regulations. The law was passed after congressional hearings found that houses of worship, especially those of minority religions, were actively discriminated against by local land-use and zoning decisions.

The DOJ announced Tuesday morning that it has settled its case against the township with an agreement that will allow the Islamic Society to build the mosque. The township will also pay $3.25 million, which consists of $1.5 million in damages and $1.75 million in legal fees.

"I felt vindicated. At the end of the day, all we wanted to do was express our First Amendment rights and have a place to worship," Ahmed says.

The lawyer who represented the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge applauded the settlement. "Municipalities around the country should pay close attention to what happened in Bernards Township," said Adeel Mangi in a statement. "The American Muslim community has the legal resources, the allies, and the determination to stand up for its constitutional rights in court and will do so."

"Bernards Township made decisions that treated the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge differently than other houses of worship," acting U.S. Attorney William Fitzpatrick of the District of New Jersey said in a statement. "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."

Bernards Township spokesman Michael Turner said in a statement that the rejection of the Islamic Society's application to build a mosque was not discriminatory and was based on accepted land use criteria. "Bernards Township is a diverse and inclusive community, where for years the ISBR congregation have practiced their religion along with their neighbors unimpeded, using township facilities at the Bernards Township Community Center and at Dunham Park," the statement said.

This article has been updated with quotes from Nadim Ahmed and a statement from the Bernards Township spokesman.