BERNARDS TWP. , NJ - A federal judge has sent back to state Superior Court a citizen’s complaint surrounding the township’s settlement of a lawsuit with an Islamic group seeking to build a mosque in Bernards Township.
U.S. District Judge Michael A. Shipp ruled in favor of township resident Cody Smith’s motion on Nov. 29.
Smith filed a motion May 25 in Superior Court claiming the township violated the state Open Public Meetings Act by failing to provide proper notice of a meeting on May 23 when the Planning Board and Township Committee voted to enter agreements settling a case brought by the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge.
Smith’s suit claims the public was not informed of the terms of the settlements nor allowed to comment on the vote until after it had been taken.
On May 30 U.S District Court incorporated the township bodies’ passage of settlement agreements into the federal lawsuit brought by ISBR. The township claimed the lawsuit interfered with a federal order in the action brought by ISBR.
Shipp ruled that the burden failed to meet the legal standard to overcome the legal presumption that Smith’s action should be remanded to state court. The judge noted the legal presumption is that the OPMA matter should be, if possible, determined in state court.
The township’s legal brief argued the agreement was incorporated into the federal ISBR litigation and the court had kept jurisdiction “for all purposes” related to the terms of the agreement.
Shipps’ ruling said it found “unpersuasive” the township’s argument that because the federal court has jurisdiction over the ISBR’s suit, it has ancillary jurisdiction over a challenge to the validity of the case’s settlement.
In March 2016, the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge (ISBR) sued Bernards Township alleging it had discriminated against the Islamic Society when it declined to approve construction of a mosque on a Liberty Corner area lot that opponents argued was too small. A few months later, the U. S. Department of Justice filed a second lawsuit against the township.
The Township Committee and Planning Board at a public meeting on May 23 voted to settle the two lawsuits. The agreement required the payment of $3.25 million to the ISBR and its attorneys, as well as grant zoning variances to allow the mosque to be built.
Smith’s lawsuit alleges the township entered into the settlements with the mosque proponents without publicly disclosing the terms beforehand, as required by the OPMA.