US Town That Denied Mosque Permit to Pay Islamic Group $3.25M

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The top federal prosecutor in New Jersey has launched an investigation into Bayonne officials denying a Muslim group's permit to build a mosque in the city earlier this year, BuzzFeed News has learned.

In the other case, The Islamic Society of Basking Ridge sued Bernards Township, an upscale town in central New Jersey, last year, claiming it changed its zoning ordinances in order to deny the group's plans. "Bernards Township made decisions that treated the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge differently than other houses of worship".

"Federal law requires towns to treat religious land use applications like any other land use application", said William E. Fitzpatrick, Acting U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey.

The city's zoning board eventually denied the group, called Bayonne Muslims, a zoning variance that would allow for the project to go ahead, in March 2016.

Before the zoning laws were changed, eight of the 11 houses of worship built in Bernards Township were on lots smaller than six acres, according to CBS News.

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Though the planning board had said the society's blueprints did not include enough parking spaces, the Justice Department noted that it relied on a recommendation of 107 spaces whereas the township zoning code requires only 50 parking spaces for houses of worship. 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".

But when the Islamic Society submitted plans to Bernards Township for a 4,200-square-foot mosque, complete with discreet minarets that looked like chimneys, the local community erupted in anti-Muslim opposition to the plans. The Islamic Society had previously rented space in a local community center to hold Friday prayers but in 2011 was able to purchase a property to construct a mosque. The township also agreed to publicize its anti-discrimination policy in local newspaper ads and to report periodically on its compliance with the settlement to Justice Department officials. Mohammad Ali Chaudry, president of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge and plaintiff in a lawsuit against Benards Township, at the site of the proposed mosque. On top of paying $3.25 million in damages and attorney's fees, town officials will also have to undergo sensitivity training.

Both the society and the the U.S. Department of Justice slapped the township with complaints in 2016, about a year after the planning board denied site-plan approval.

Michael Turner, a spokesman for Bernards Township, said the town's rejection of the mosque building application was not "discriminatory", but rather was "based on land use criteria only". "A similar lawsuit cost nearby Bridgewater Township nearly $8 million in a 2014 settlement", the wire service states. A Bernards Township statement said that except for a deductible, the municipality's insurance company will pay the settlement with no taxpayer funding involved.

"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", said Adeel A. Mangi, whose firm, Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler, will be donating its legal fees from this case to charity.