An Islamic group has filed a federal lawsuit accusing a New Jersey planning board of rejecting its proposal to build a mosque because of anti-Muslim animus.
In the 112-page document dated March 10, the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge alleges that the Bernards Township Planning Board violated both state and federal constitutions, as well as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, by applying different land-use standards for Muslim and non-Muslim houses of worship. The complaint also accuses the board of religious discrimination in denying the society’s application in January.
“What should have been a simple board approval for a permitted use devolved into a Kafkaesque process that spanned an unprecedented four years and included 39 public hearings,” the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in New Jersey, reads. “Those proceedings took place against a backdrop of ugly spectacle.”
Bernards Township Mayor Carol Bianchi, who is named in the lawsuit, told NBC News in an email that the allegations raised in the lawsuit do not represent their community, which she described as warm and inclusive.
“Our planning board members are ethical, dedicated volunteers, and I trust they made their decisions based on land use considerations,” she said.
Adeel A. Mangi, an attorney representing the society, told NBC News that neither he nor Mohammad Ali Chaudry, president and founder of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, would comment because of the pending litigation. Chaudry, who according to the lawsuit has lived with his family in the township for nearly 40 years, once served as mayor.
In November 2011, the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge purchased approximately four acres of property for $750,000 to build its mosque in a residential section of the township, court documents said. The property, on which a single-family home still sits, met all of the zoning requirements for a house of worship in a residential area, the lawsuit said.
Five months later, the society filed its application to construct a 4,252-square-foot mosque, which would include a prayer hall and a parking lot with 50 spaces, according to the complaint. The society’s architect designed the structure with discreet minarets — tall slender towers — that would look like residential chimneys and omitted a traditional dome, the lawsuit said.
The first of 39 public hearings — a historic number for the board, according to the lawsuit — was held on Aug. 7, 2012. Both before and after, the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge alleges it was targeted with anti-Islamic sentiment. One flyer distributed in the community 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.”
While the society’s proposal was still before the board, the township committee passed an ordinance in October 2013, changing the zoning rules for houses of worship, the lawsuit said. The “hard or impossible-to-meet” new conditions were an effort to ensure the society would never be able to build a mosque once its pending application was denied, the plaintiffs allege. Existing houses of worship, however, would not be covered by the new rules, the lawsuit said.
Basing its decision on issues like parking, site lighting, and fire safety, the planning board turned down the society’s proposed mosque on Jan. 19 after dozens of hearings, according to court documents. It formally published its decision nine days later.
But the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge argues that the board misapplied the township ordinances.
For parking, in particular, the planning board allegedly adopted a different standard than the one used for “churches,” which was to allocate one spot for every three seats, the lawsuit said. When the society, at the board’s request, altered its plans to create a total of 107 parking spaces, the planning board allegedly raised new objections, saying a large lot created “more impervious surface” and that it required more lighting, court papers said.
“Though not an explicit basis for denying ISBR’s application, the board’s requirement of 107 parking spaces laid the groundwork for each of the board’s bases for denying ISBR’s preliminary and final site plan approval,” the complaint reads.
Yhe Islamic Society of Basking Ridge argues that its proposed mosque was held to a different standard than churches and synagogues. The lawsuit asks, among other things, that the court order the planning board to grant preliminary and final approval for the site plan submitted in November and that compensatory damages and other appropriate relief be awarded at trial.
“The board’s denial of ISBR’s application purported to be driven by several land use issues, but in reality, ISBR’s application was denied because defendants capitulated to and adopted the anti-Muslim animus of their community constituents,” the lawsuit said.