A New Jersey township planning board's alleged application of different land-use standards for a proposal to build a mosque violated federal law and is an "affront to our nation's commitment to religious liberty for all," according to one of two friend-of-the-court briefs filed this week.
The briefs — one submitted on Wednesday, the other on Thursday — lend support to a lawsuit that the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge filed in March against the Bernards Township Planning Board, which rejected the society's bid to build a 4,252-square-foot mosque after 39 public hearings over four years. The society alleges that the board yielded to anti-Muslim animus in the community in making its decision, a charge the township has denied.
In the amicus brief filed Wednesday, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a legal nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., was joined by 17 religious, civil, and legal groups in arguing that the planning board violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 when it allegedly applied different parking standards to Muslim and non-Muslim houses of worship.
The Becket Fund has also filed friend-of-the-court briefs and represented plaintiffs in other cases involving the federal religious land-use act.
"Such unequal treatment of the mosque in this case represents a potential threat to the free exercise rights of each of the amici represented here and is an affront to our nation's commitment to religious liberty for all," the brief reads.
An additional 16 organizations — among them, Muslim Advocates, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the American Civil Liberties Union — signed onto a second brief Thursday, saying that the planning board's actions are part of a growing trend of attacks on small American-Muslim communities and of zoning permit denials of mosques in New Jersey and elsewhere.
"We are deeply moved to see this unprecedented and historic list of 34 organizations standing together to support ISBR and challenge the actions of Bernards Township," society founder and president Mohammad Ali Chaudry, who once served as Bernards Township mayor, said in a statement. "We look forward to the day when we can welcome them all to a mosque in Bernards Township."
Bernards Township Mayor Carol Bianchi told NBC News in an email that the planning board did not discriminate against the society.
"With regard to the motions to file amicus briefs, this seems to be standard for these types of complaints," she said. "However, anyone who knows our planning board members, or attended the planning board hearings and evaluated the information objectively, would conclude that the decision was based solely on land use considerations."
Bianchi added that "if the applicant did not agree with the planning board decision, the proper avenue would have been to file an appeal in the normal course." The board issued a resolution in April giving the society a chance to resubmit its plan, but the society filed a motion in court last week asking a judge to quash it, saying the board lost jurisdiction once the society challenged the rejection in court.
The amicus brief submitted Wednesday — joined by, among other groups, the National Association of Evangelicals and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty — lends support to another motion the society filed last week asking a judge to void as unconstitutional portions of a Bernards Township ordinance. That regulation, the society argues, allowed the planning board to allegedly use a different standard in deciding the amount of parking required for the proposed mosque.
The society said the board determined that the mosque needed 107 spaces, more than double the 50 required by township ordinance under a 3:1 ratio for houses of worship, the motion reads.
"The planning board then leveraged its parking determination to generate a litany of other pretextual bases for denial, e.g., quibbling over the placement of a drainage basin forced into its proposed location by the supersized parking lot," the motion read.
The brief says that between 2011 and 2015, at least 25 percent of investigations stemming from the religious land-use act involved mosques or Islamic schools, despite Muslims making up only one percent of the U.S. population. Citing a 2006 case in Florida, the groups argue that the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge's "discriminatory treatment" was even more blatant than that of a synagogue whose application to operate in a residential zone, unlike other houses of worship, was denied.
The role anti-Muslim animus allegedly plays in religious land-use cases was taken up in the second friend-of-the-court brief filed on Thursday. In it, the organizations argue that hate-filled rhetoric from public officials has served to reinforce anti-Muslim sentiment.
In its 112-page lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in New Jersey, the society alleges that it had been the target of anti-Islamic sentiment.
One flyer distributed in the community, for instance, asked whether terrorist acts are "something they taught in your mosques and at home," according to the complaint. A website called barenakedislam.com posted an article about the proposed mosque with its own embedded commentary and included such statements as "nobody wants to live near potential terrorists," the lawsuit said.
And the society's mailbox, court papers said, was defaced with three-inch stickers to change its acronym from "ISBR" to "ISIS."
The brief goes on to say that a number of Islamic centers in New Jersey have also faced opposition because of anti-Muslim animus, making religious land-use matters particularly pertinent to the state.
Most recently in March, an application for an Islamic center in Bayonne, New Jersey, was still pending before a city zoning board as some community members rallied in protest against it, the brief said.
"Even when American Muslim communities are not subject to blatant displays of bias and hostility in the course of the zoning process, their applications are often denied on the basis of suspect studies and standards that are applied to no other applicants," the brief reads.