BERNARDS TWP., NJ - The Bernards Township Committee granted approval for memorialization of last month's legal settlements with the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge and the U.S. Department of Justice in agreements that will facilitate the construction of a 4,250-square-foot mosque in Liberty Corner. Township Committeeman John Carpenter cast the sole dissenting vote.
The general terms of the settlement agreements were released publicly on May 30. Both the lawsuits from the ISBR and DOJ were filed in 2016, and stemmed from the Planning Board's December rejection of the mosque application.
The terms of the settlements with both the ISBR and federal DOJ, approved by majority votes of the Bernards Township Committee and Planning Board on May 23, are posted on the township website. Carpenter also voted against the settlement at that meeting.
One of the key points under the terms of the agreement is that the township cannot require more than 50 parking spaces for the proposed 4,250-square-foot mosque, instead of the 107 required by the Planning Board during three years of hearings on the proposal. The settlement notes that it the figure that would generally be required for a church, or similar house of worship, and specified that different standards must not be applied to a proposed mosque. The terms of the agreement specifies that neither Bernards Township or any other government can impose discriminatory requirements against a house of worship of one religion as opposed to another.
The agreement also calls for the township to pay $3.5 million, most of which will be covered by litigation insurance, for damages and legal costs.
Following Tuesday's meeting, Carpenter noted that, "I think the DOJ and ISBR were working hand in glove, and I don't think that's right." He said neither party would agree to settle alone and that he himself would have been more likely to work out an agreement with the ISBR and litigate the DOJ complaint alleging religious discrimination and calling for a change to municipal zoning. "They were working together to change our zoning," he said. "To me, it's part of a national effort to undermine local zoning."
Carpenter said he had received complaints from the other side's attorney after he spoke out against the settlement previously. He questioned whether the attorneys for the plaintiffs were comfortable with their negotiating tactics in the settlement "if they are not comfortable discussing it."
Township to oppose lawsuit from resident seeking to void the agreement
Last week, following a closed session to discuss pending litigation from resident Cody Smith against Bernards Township and the Planning Board that seeks to void the settlement agreement, the Bernards Planning Board authorized its attorney Jonathan Drill to represent the township against Smith's case. Smith has opposed of the settlement with the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge and the U.S. Department of Justice to facilitate the establishment of a 4,250-square-foot mosque on a little more than four acres of residential property in Liberty Corner.
On Smith's behalf, a New Jersey attorney affiliated with The Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., filed a lawsuit in state Superior Court alleging that the township violated the state Open Public Meetings Act by approving a legal settlement without disclosing the terms of the settlement and allowing public comment before the settlement was approved.