Federal Judge: NJ Town Discriminated By Blocking Mosque Construction

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In a major victory for local Islamic leaders, a federal judge ruled on New Year’s Eve that a New Jersey township acted with “unbridled and unconstitutional discretion” when it effectively blocked construction of a mosque.

U.S. District Court Judge Michael Shipp found that Bernards Township officials violated the 2000 Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act by requiring the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge to build far more parking spaces than those required for local churches or synagogues in an “impermissible discrimination on basis of religion.”

The ISBR’s attorney, Adeel Mangi, applauded the decision in a statement to TPM, saying it had national implications for other municipalities accused of invoking obscure land use issues to block the construction of mosques.

“This is a landmark ruling interpreting the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act that will have national impact in reaffirming that Townships cannot treat applicants differently based on their religion,” Mangi said in the statement.

In March 2016, ISBR leaders frustrated by a failed, years-long effort to secure approval for construction of the mosque sued Bernards Township and 15 township officials. Led by former township mayor and ISBR president Mohammed Chaudry, the group alleged that the township’s concerns over parking spaces and stormwater management were just cover for Islamophobia.

The U.S. Justice Department filed its own suit in November, accusing the township of “using ever-changing local requirements” to prevent ISBR members from enjoying their right to worship.

Yet Bernards Township leaders show no sign of backing down, and on Sunday suggested they will appeal Shipp’s ruling.

“The Township vehemently disagrees with the Court’s decision and awaits a full analysis of the 57-page decision by its attorneys, who only learned of the decision on New Year’s Day,” Mayor Carol Bianchi told NJ.com in a statement. “The Township will consider how to best move forward including appealing the decision when ripe for appeal.”

Bianchi and other local leaders maintain that the decision to block the mosque construction was purely practical, despite an ugly public campaign from residents warning that the mosque could serve as a training ground for terrorists and the publication of private emails that showed township committee members disparaging Muslims and Islam.

In those emails, which the ISBR’s attorneys submitted to the court as evidence in December, officials mocked President Barack Obama as a “Muslim” “man child” and called ISBR president Chaudry a “fool.”

Shipp did not take the messages into account in making his decision, Mangi told NJ.com.

Read the full ruling below:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Allegra Kirkland is a New York-based reporter for Talking Points Memo. She previously worked on The Nation’s web team and as the associate managing editor for AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @allegrakirkland.
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