BERNARDS TWP., NJ - The terms of a settlement agreement that resolves litigation involving both the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge and the U.S. Department of Justice, released on Tuesday morning, directs the the township to grant necessary approvals to allow a mosque to be built on slightly more than four acres on Church Street in accordance with the terms of approval for the May 30 agreement.
The township also reportedly will be required to pay $3.25 million to the plaintiffs that filed the lawsuits in 2016, including $1.5 million in damages, and $1.75 million in litigation costs. "A New Jersey town agreed to treat all houses of worship equally and pay $3.25 million in damages and attorneys’ fees, after a federal court ruled that the town had illegally discriminated against a local mosque," said a Tuesday release from Becket, a non-profit law firm with the stated mission of protecting all religious traditions in the case.
Insurance to cover most of costs for Bernards Township
That figure was not confirmed by township officials. However, Michael Turner, a public relations spokesman hired to represent the township in the case, said in another release on Tuesday that "the monetary settlement costs (minus a deductible) will be borne by our insurers, not the taxpayers."
Turner added that if the township had continued litigation, there was significant risk of exceeding insurance coverage and the possibility of denial of coverage under certain exclusions, which he said was the subject of arbitration.
“We are very pleased by this resolution and hope to receive prompt approval to build our mosque," ISBR president and township resident Ali Chaudry said in a release issued by his attorney. "We look forward to welcoming people of all faiths and backgrounds to our mosque. Our doors will be open to anyone interested in building bridges to promote harmony in the community and peace in the world."
Terms of agreement
Under the terms of the agreement, 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 before the board rejected the ISBR's proposal in December 2015. 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.
Turner said that a New Year's Eve 2016 ruling by federal Judge Michael Shipp that the township could not require the mosque develpers to provide more parking than would be required for a similarly sized church was key in officials' decision not to pursue further litigation, and risk the loss of the case, with mounting legal costs. "The Township vehemently disagrees with Judge Shipp’s decision," Shipp said in the release. Near the beginning of the more than three years of hearing that preceeded the Planning Board's decision, the board concluded that additional parking would be required on the stated basis that many mosque worshippers arrived alone in vehicles from work in order to participate in afternoon services.
The basis for both lawsuits had been that that religious discrimination had been the basis for the higher parking requirement, leading to the rejection of the plans; the board cited land use issues as the reason for denying the plan.
Township continues to maintain the decision was based on land use issues
"The Township maintains that the denial of the Planning Board was based on accepted land use criteria only," Turner's release said. The release added the township's view that Bernards 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. Bernards Township elected Dr. Ali Chaudry as the nation’s first Pakistani Muslim Mayor after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001."
"We remain a united township where all are welcome," Turner's release added. "This is the end of a long engagement on the application and opinions may still be varied, but it is in the best interest of the township to conclude the litigation," the release said.
Adeel A. Mangi, lead counsel for the ISBR, said on Tuesday that “Municipalities around the country should pay close attention to what happened in Bernards Township. 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."
ISBR's law firm says legal fees will be donated to worthy causes
Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler, the law firm representing the ISBR, will be donating all of the attorneys’ fees it recovers through the settlement to "a variety of charitable and other worthy causes," the firm stated on Tuesday. "It was our honor and privilege to represent the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge in this fundamental constitutional battle to defend American values," the statement added.
Township had reportedly asked ISBR to consider another location
Turner's release added that the township had asked the ISBR if the organization would consider another local location on which to site the mosque, a suggestion made repeatedly by residents during hearings, and especially during recent public comments at an earlier meeting this month at which no vote was reached on the settlement agreement. Turner's release said that "It is the property owner’s right to build on its property as a permitted use [subject to reasonable conditions] or choose another location. The township has no right to force the applicant to move to another location."