An interfaith coalition organized by the Anti-Defamation League is supporting a Muslim congregation’s right to open a mosque in Bridgewater, despite a local ordinance forbidding the house of worship.
Etzion Neuer, NJ regional director of the ADL, said his organization was troubled by a zoning law that was passed by the Somerset County township only after the Muslim group, alFalah, had legally begun operating at a location on Mountain Top Road.
“This attempt to create zoning ex post facto has some rather sinister elements to it,” said Neuer.
The Muslim group, alFalah, began renting the Redwood Inn on Mountain Top Road after the inn closed in 2008.
At the time, the Bridgewater zoning ordinance permitted the building to be used as a house of worship.
AlFalah sought to buy the property and convert it into an Islamic center. Plans called for its housing a mosque and a religious school, as well as facilities for day care, after-school programs, and activities for senior citizens.
On March 14, 2011, the Bridgewater Township Council enacted a new law restricting houses of worship, schools, and country clubs to major roads in the township.
Two months later, the mosque sued the town and the members of its council and planning board, arguing that the law violated the New Jersey Law against Discrimination and the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
The latter statute, enacted in 2000, gives religious groups wide latitude in circumventing local zoning laws that restrict houses of worship.
The Interfaith Coalition on Mosques, sponsored by the ADL and made up of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders, supported alFalah in a letter to the township.
“There certainly has not been opposition to synagogues and churches that includes the kind of bigotry we’ve seen against mosques,” wrote ICOM coordinator Rabbi Eric J. Greenberg.
Bridgewater currently has 17 churches, a Catholic convent, a synagogue, two Hindu temples, and one Sikh temple.
“ICOM gets involved when we feel there has been an injection of anti-Muslim bigotry,” Deborah Lauter, the ADL’s national director for civil rights, told NJ Jewish News.
The Muslim congregation’s case is pending before the United States District Court in Trenton. Howard Cohen of Lawrenceville, counsel to the township of Bridgewater, declined to comment on the issues surrounding the lawsuit.
Some area residents, including members of the Somerset County Tea Party, said they were troubled about traffic congestion and “land-use issues.”
“The fact that the center would contain a Muslim, rather than Christian or Jewish, house of worship doesn’t trouble me at all,” Tea Party spokesperson James Lefkowitz told NJJN in February.
Neuer visited the site of the proposed mosque in July.
“The site is in a commercial zone,” he said. “It is set back and blocked by high trees all around. There have been arguments put forth by the folks in the area, and after reviewing their complaints we were not convinced by their arguments. The reasons given to block the mosque were not terribly compelling.”
ICOM was formed in September 2010 in response to what organizers at the ADL and other groups said was a “disturbing rise in discrimination against Muslims trying to legally build or expand their houses of worship.”
“The incredibly unfortunate aspect of all this is that too many disputes over the zoning of mosques devolve into bigotry,” said Neuer. “We are sensitive to people having anxiety and mistrust of a group that is different than our own, but that fear or anxiety cannot be allowed to manifest itself in any form of discrimination, and that is the concern here.”
Even before Bridgewater’s new zoning law was passed, Jewish leaders had expressed support for alFalah.
In February, Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Bnai Keshet, the Reconstructionist congregation in Montclair, joined 20 other rabbis, one cantor, and five rabbinical students in supporting alFalah.
Tepperman told NJJN he was motivated by “the Jewish obligation to welcome the stranger.”
His comment triggered strong opposition in readers’ comments to the Feb. 24 article in NJJN (see Related Article).
“Muslims have never welcomed Jews or the existence of Israel,” wrote Sanford M. Sherman of Bridgewater. “Israel is their sworn enemy and the United States is not far behind.”
“When I had first heard about this proposed Mosque, I was infuriated,” wrote someone who identified himself as Scott. “I am Jewish myself and get even more angry when seeing Jewish rabbi’s [sic] supporting this structure.”
Neuer said he is troubled by opposition to the mosque.
“We see complaints about churches and synagogues, and sometimes opposition may come up that is anti-Christian or anti-Semitic in an attempt to block these institutions,” he said. “But there is a general sense that Islamophobia is more acceptable when it comes to zoning statutes, and we must absolutely draw the line and call it for what it is — bigotry.”