BERNARDS TWP., NJ - A federal judge reportedly ruled on New Year's Eve that the Bernards Township Planning Board acted improperly when it demanded a higher number of parking spaces for a proposed mosque in Liberty Corner than the number of parking spaces that would have been required for a church.
“The court has held that Bernards Township discriminated against ISBR [Islamic Society of Basking Ridge] based on its Islamic faith and that the township’s actions were unconstitutional," said Adeel Mangi, lead counsel for organization that has proposed construction of a 4,250-square-foot on slightly more than four acres off Church Street in Liberty Corner Village. "This ruling resolves the key disputed land use issues in the case because many of the township’s bases for denial depended on its requirement of a 'supersized' parking lot," Mangi said in an email sent to TAP Into Basking Ridge on Dec. 31.
Last March, the ISBR had filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the Bernards Township Planning Board's denial of the mosque application on Dec. 8, 2015 was based on religious discrimination. The lawsuit was also filed on behalf of Mohammad Ali Chaudry, president of the ISBR and, as a resident of Basking Ridge, a former member of the Bernards Township Committee.
The planned mosque, which would have replaced a mid-20th century house at 124 Church St., would have been built to accommodate 150 or fewer worshippers, the applicants said during about three dozen public hearings prior to the Planning Board's denial of the application.
Bernards Township officials have denied the allegations, and have maintained that the Planning Board's rejection of the application was based on land use laws. During hearings, residents and other township officials also expressed concerns that the project would negatively impact the historic residential neighborhood, and possibly also create traffic backups that would make it difficult for the nearby Liberty Corner Fire Co. to respond to emergency calls.
The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Michael A. Shipp, sitting in New Jersey, was in response to a request from the ISBR for a partial ruling on the discrimination case.
Township officials say they 'vehemently disagree' with New Year's Eve ruling
On Jan. 1, Bernards Township Mayor Carol Bianchi issued a release that the township had just received word of Shipp's partial ruling on the case on New Year's Day.
Bianchi said that the township "vehemently disagrees" with Shipp's ruling and will consider how to be move forward with the case, "including appealing the decision when ripe for appeal."
However, Bianchi added that given the holiday, officials are awaiting a full analysis of Shipp's 57-page decision by attorneys representing Bernards in the case.
However, Mangi called the judge's written decision, "a landmark ruling interpreting the [federal] Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act that will have national impact in reaffirming that townships cannot treat applicants differently based on their religion."
In a copy of the the judge's written decision submitted to TAP Into, Shipp pointed to what he said are the "defendants’ [Bernards Township's] disparate application of an off-street parking requirement between Christian churches and Muslim mosques, pursuant to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”)...and the purported unconstitutional vagueness of a parking ordinance."
Shipp said that "after careful consideration," the court determined that the ISBR was entitled to judgment regarding both issues.
Shipp pointed to a Bemards Township parking ordinance that sets forth a general ratio of 3 to 1 between seats for worshippers and parking spaces, and noted that the township has set that ratio of 3:1 as an acceptable standard for “churches.”
"The parking ordinance, by reference, provides a definition of 'churches' that includes mosques, yet [the township's officials] applied their own unsubstantiated interpretation that the term 'churches' exclusively refers to Christian churches and not Muslim mosques," the written ruling states. "Based on their review of the application and relevant evidence, [the township Planning Board and its professionals] required ISBR to construct parking spaces far exceeding the 3:1 ratio afforded to Christian churches," Shipp's ruling said.
During the public hearings before the Planning Board regarding the application, board members and their professionals heard testimony that because mosque worshippers sometimes attended services by driving directly from work, they sometimes arrived with fewer than standard of an average three persons in each vehicle who would be attending services. After initial testimony, township planners raised the required number of parking spaces to 107.
Bianchi noted that Shipp had "opined that the township had to apply the same standard for every house of worship to determine the number of parking spaces, regardless of actual parking demands."
She said that the ruling would prevent the Planning Board from being able to consider a 2010 International Traffic Engineering report or other evidence "to determine the actual parking needs of the institution."
Bianchi said that decision would have major implications for municipal land use boards, including Planning Boards, and their ability to determine the actual off-street parking needs of proposed projects without fear of being accused of religious discrimination, as an alleged violation of RLUIPA.
Second lawsuit filed by U.S. Justice Department in November
Right before Thanksgiving, the U.S. Justice Department also filed a lawsuit against Bernards Township, alleging that the township violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 when it denied zoning approval to allow the ISBR to build the mosque.
The new complaint, which is said to have followed an eight-month investigation, was also filed in U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.
A township statement issued in response to the November filing said that the municipality "strongly believes that the DOJ [Department of Justice] action is designed to coerce the township to settle in a manner which does not address proper land use planning."
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.