BERNARDS TWP., NJ - The U.S. Justice Department this week filed a lawsuit against Bernards Township, alleging that the township violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) when it denied zoning approval to allow the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge to build a mosque on land owned by the ISBR in Liberty Corner. This second complaint follows a still-pending lawsuit filed by the ISBR last March that also contends that discrimination was the basis for Planning Board's rejection last December of a proposal for a 4,250-square-foot mosque on Church Street in Liberty Corner Village.
The new complaint, which is said to have followed an eight-month investigation, was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.
The new filing came just days after Bernards Township officials issued a statement updating its response to the original lawsuit, on which subpoenas had previously been served on residents and officials, and a mediation session had been requested. The township release, which is posted on the Bernards Township website, says the township believes the "investigation is inappropriate at best and raises serious Constitutional issues."
The township officials in the release, expressed the concern that such legal actions could "dissuade residents from participating in future land use hearings for fear of retribution from an applicant and the government."
However, Dr. Ali Chaudry, a Bernards Township resident who is president of the ISBR, as well as a former Township Committee member, said in a statement issued on Nov. 22 by his attorney that the filing by the Department of Justice "comes after a lengthy investigation that started in March. It addresses why Bernards Township denied our mosque application and it eviscerates the township’s claim that the denial was based on legitimate land use issues. Our community deserves its own place to pray and we will ensure we get it by standing up for our constitutional rights in court.”
The news release issued by the Department of Justice further states that different standards were applied to the mosque proposal than if the development application had been filed by another religious group.
“As alleged in the complaint, Bernards Township has treated the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge differently than other houses of worship,” U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman of the District of New Jersey said in a Nov. 22 news release announcing the filing.
“RLUIPA ensures that municipalities must treat religious land use applications like any other land use application. But here, township officials kept moving the goalposts by using ever-changing local requirements to effectively deny this religious community the same access as other faiths," Fishman said in the news release.
A key issue in the complaint focuses on parking. The original application, filed about four years ago, sought room for a mosque on a four-acre property at 124 Church Street that would serve 150 worshippers, in a plan providing for 50 parking places. The lawsuit said the plan complied with a township ratio of three worshippers to one parking in municipal ordinances.
After initial testimony, township planners raised the required number of parking spaces to 107. At the time, the stated rationale was that worshippers attending a series of religious services at the mosque were more likely to arrive alone, often from their jobs. The ISBR representatives stated, among other responses, that not all worshippers would be attending all the services.
However, the ISBR lawsuit contended that the request for the "supersize" parking lot led to complaints about land use issues on the property, including the placement of a drainage basin.
During the three dozen or so hearings that followed before the Planning Board's denial of the mosque application on Dec. 8, residents also expressed such concerns as the impact of the project on the local environment and the possibility that traffic entering or leaving the site could impede the response time of the nearby Liberty Corner Fire Co., which serves three quarters of the township. The board ruled that the project's impact on traffic on Church Street, a county road, should be addressed by the Somerset County Planning Board.
The township's public statement on Nov. 18 said the DOJ had recently notified Bernards that it would file a complaint, but did not reveal the specific bases for the complaint. "The DOJ did, however, offer to refrain from filing a Complaint if the Township conceded to substantially all of Plaintiffs’ demands. The Township strongly believes that the DOJ action is designed to coerce the Township to settle in a manner which does not address proper land use planning," the statement said.
The township statement said that Bernards had voluntarily cooperated with the Department of Justice investigation with 350 hours of staff time spent on providing 215,000 pages of documentation.
An attorney representing the ISBR, Adeel Mangi, referred further information on the case to court papers, regarding the initial complaint filed last March 10.
However, he noted that amicus briefs backing the ISBR had been filed by 34 leading civil rights, religious and legal organizations supporting ISBR’s motion on the issue of parking.
The ISBR property is located in a residential zone, but at the time of the Islamic Society’s filing, houses of worship were permitted in such zones. Township officials have since changed the local zoning.
The complaint filed by the DOJ this week also alleges that the township violated RLUIPA by amending its zoning ordinance in a manner that imposes unreasonable limitations on all religious assemblies.
“Sixteen years ago, Congress passed RLUIPA unanimously – with diverse religious and ideological support – because it recognized the fundamental right of all religious communities to build places of worship free from discrimination,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “No congregation or community should ever face unlawful barriers to practicing their religion and observing their faith.”
Township officials, including Mayor Carol Bianchi, disputed that the township had attempted to discriminate against the ISBR, or try to block the group from observing its faith. "In my 15 years in Bernards Township, I have always known this community to be inclusive," she said in an email. "People of every culture in Bernards Township tell me they feel welcome. The baseless allegations of the plaintiffs and the Department of Justice attempt to divide our community and we will not allow this to happen," she said in a statement.
The ISBR has for a number of years rented out the municipal Community Center as a place to gather for services, an arrangement that the township clerk confirmed this week is still in place.
"We have also been a unified community," Bianchi said. "We have numerous community events throughout the year, including Charter Day, Memorial Day parade, Veterans Day celebration, plays and concerts in the park, and so many more which we encourage everyone to participate in." A recent Diwali celebration inviting the local Hindu community to the Oak Street School was held recently, she said.
Mangi, of the law firm Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP, lead counsel for the ISBR and Chaudry, issued a statement along with the DOJ announcement: "When ISBR filed its lawsuit setting forth a detailed history of discrimination and hate crimes, the township blamed ISBR. When the national media studied the case and described the township as the ‘face of bigotry,' the township condemned the media as prejudiced. When 34 of the nation’s leading civil rights, religious and legal organizations filed amicus briefs in support of ISBR, the township claimed the amici were ‘fostering division in our country.’ And now, when the Department of Justice has sued the township after an exhaustive eight-month investigation conducted by objective career professionals, they claim that even the United States is biased against them. ISBR will pursue its legal rights in court.”
However, Mangi added that the ISBR has stayed its court subpoenas against township residents pending further rulings in the case.
Bianchi said that she and other township officials were not contacted prior to the publication of the first reports regarding the case. She said she was served a subpoena at home in front of her children rather than through township counsel.
"Subpoenas should never have been served upon residents in the first place," Bianchi said in an email this week. She called the issuance of court subpoentas "an anti-free speech tactic" employed by Chaudry and his attorneys.