The Islamic Society of Basking Ridge won a key legal battle in a protracted fight to build a mosque in an historic district after a judge ruled the town’s governing board rejected the Society’s application on the basis of religious discrimination.
The decision was hailed by a large coalition of interfaith organizations who supported the Society’s struggle, including the Anti-Defamation League, the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists,, the Union for Reform Judaism, Women for Reform Judaism,, National Council of Jewish Women, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and 13 other religious and legal groups. The groups banded together in 2015, after the town’s governing board had denied the Islamic Society permission to erect a mosque, under the banner of the Interfaith Coalition on Mosques that was organized by the ADL in 2010.
Their arguments may have helped persuade U.S. District Court Judge Michael Shipp to rule last week that township officials showed “sufficient intent to discriminate on the basis of religion” against the Islamic Society.
The defendants, the Township of Bernards, contended that public safety, traffic congestion, and a shortage of parking spaces — not religious bias — motivated their opposition to the mosque. The town requires “churches, auditoriums, and theaters” to account for one parking spot for every three seats in each structure, and the town planning board said the Islamic Society failed to meet this requirement.
However, that argument failed to sway the judge, who wrote that the town’s governing board “unambiguously” treated the mosque application differently than it had the other religious groups.
“Here, Defendants’ application of the Parking Ordinance clearly lacks neutrality and general applicability because it expressly applies different standards on the basis of religion,” Shipp wrote in his decision.
Lawyers for the Islamic Society used the example of two Basking Ridge synagogues, the Chabad of Greater Somerset County and Congregation B’nai Israel, to bolster their case.
When Chabad applied to build a structure in 1995, the board approved in under three months and the parking requirements were not raised. Five years later Chabad applied for additional space for clergy, a social hall, sanctuary, and classrooms, and although the issue of parking was raised, the application was ultimately approved in less than six months.
B’nai Israel proposed a 25,000- square-foot structure in 1993 for a synagogue, religious school, and nursery school, which the planning board granted in less than five months. Although the seat-to-parking ratio was under the three-to-one requirement, the board still approved, because “strict enforcement of the requirement regarding the number of parking spaces to be provided would be impracticable or would exact undue hardship.”
“Defendants unambiguously treated ISBR’s application to build a Muslim mosque differently than applications for Christian churches and Jewish synagogues,” Shipp concluded. “Regardless of whether the intent focused on the denomination of the structure being built or the denomination of the congregation, the focus of the intent inquiry remains the disparate application of the Parking Ordinance based on religious affiliation.”
A citizens group, the nonprofit Bernards Township Citizens for Responsible Development, one of the primary opponents to the mosque, did not respond to NJJN’s request for comment. On its website, it states, “We are strongly opposed to all forms of intolerance, bigotry, and prejudice, and embrace the diversity of our Township’s population.” The population of Bernards Township, approximately 27,000, is predominantly Christian.
The issue of Jewish-Muslim relations is controversial, with some believing that Jewish groups should oppose efforts to strengthen ties, especially with regard to admitting Syrian refugees into the United States. Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, has said that Syrian migrants “pose a grave danger to all Americans — and especially to American Jews and gays.”
Others, including the supporters of the Islamic Society’s application, maintain that Jews, who have faced anti-Semitism for centuries, should loudly oppose discrimination of any type, even though Jews have had a long, violent history with Muslims.
“We believe that the onerous parking and other standards used by the Township to reject the congregation’s land use application were subjective and permitted discriminatory and arbitrary enforcement,” said Joshua Cohen, director of ADL’s New Jersey regional office, in an e-mail to NJJN. “We hope that its decision will serve as a stark reminder to municipalities across New Jersey that religious institutions of all faiths must be treated equally.”
John Rosen, director of the American Jewish Committee in New Jersey, said he was pleased with the court’s decision.
“Following AJC’s long-standing policies on freedom of religion, we applaud the ruling of the judge that upheld the rights of Muslims and every religious group to uphold their freedom of worship,” he said.
Despite the ruling, the fight to build the mosque may not be over yet. The township committee members were not available for comment, but released a statement saying they “vehemently disagree” with the judge’s ruling, and are considering whether to appeal his decision.
“We are gratified by the court’s opinion,” said M. Ali Chaudhry, a former mayor of Basking Ridge who has been a leader of the fight for the mosque since its inception. “Now we will have to see what the next step will be.”
Adeel Mangi, the attorney representing the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, told NJJN the ruling will bring Muslims closer to their own house of worship. “We will not stop until the mosque is built.”