The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is suing a town in New Jersey for bias after municipal officials refused to approve plans to build a mosque.
In a new court filing, the DOJ alleges that the Bernards Township Planning Board discriminated against the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge (ISBR) and violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act during a lengthy application process that ultimately resulted in the town’s denial of the proposed project.
The town is accused of discriminating against ISBR on the basis of its religion, applying standards of review to the ISBR it had not applied to other congregations and assemblies, and imposing a burden on members of the ISBR for practicing their religion.
“RLUIPA ensures that municipalities must treat religious land use applications like any other land use application,” U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said in a statement. “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.”
The Justice Department claims the township chose to apply different fire safety standards to the mosque than other similar buildings, changed the number of parking spots required to an arbitrary figure (107 as opposed to the standard 50), and amended parliamentary rules governing hearings so that supporters of the mosque were granted prohibitively less time to speak in favor. The township also cited storm-water management (SWM) as grounds for killing the project, though they had previously approved the ISBR’s proposed SWM plan.
The township argues that it provided the mosque numerous opportunities to redress its legitimate concerns. “The Township maintains that the Planning Board denial was based on legitimate land use and safety concerns which Plaintiffs refused, and to this day, refuse to address,” the town said in a statement. “To that point, the Planning Board presented Plaintiffs an opportunity for reconsideration to address the land use issues early on, and Plaintiffs have shown no interest in complying.”
The township also calls into question the propriety of a relationship between a member of the ISBR and a lead DOJ investigator. Attorneys for the township also confirm that a lawyer representing the mosque was in contact with DOJ investigators well before the planning board reached any decision regarding the ISBR’s application. “These communications, unknown by the Township at the time, suggest an inappropriate collusion with Plaintiffs rather than an unbiased review.”
The town also accuses the Department of Justice of engaging in punitive behavior throughout the investigation, and not acting in good faith.
“The Township strongly believes the DOJ investigation, including the interviews, was not conducted in an objective manner designed to seek the truth, but rather only to support and bolster the ongoing ISBR civil lawsuit.” The ISBR brought its own civil rights lawsuit against the township earlier this year.
A similar lawsuit is currently underway against Bensalem Township, Penn., for denying an application to build a mosque because of a zoning issue.