A New Jersey township that stopped an Islamic society from building a mosque will pay the group $3.25 million, ending a multi-year battle that spanned 39 public hearings and included allegations of anti-Muslim animus.
Terms of the agreement were made public Tuesday, about a week after Bernards Township voted to settle lawsuits brought last March by the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge and in November by the Justice Department.
According to the settlements, Bernards Township will pay $1.5 million in damages to the Islamic society and $1.75 million in attorneys’ fees and litigation expenses. The law firm representing the society said it will donate its payment to charity.
The society will also be permitted to construct its mosque on the 4.088-acre property it bought in 2011, court papers said.
“We are very pleased by this resolution and hope to receive prompt approval to build our mosque,” society president and plaintiff Mohammad Ali Chaudry said in a statement. “We look forward to welcoming people of all faiths and backgrounds to our mosque.”
The agreement between the society and township also allows for 50 parking spots for the mosque — instead of the much higher 107 originally asked for by the township.
This follows a judge's ruling on New Year’s Eve that Bernards Township discriminated against the group by requiring it to provide more parking for its proposed mosque than other places of worship in the town, which is about 40 miles west of New York City.
The Islamic society maintained in its lawsuit that the stricter parking requirement had "laid the groundwork for each of the board's bases for denying [the society's] preliminary and final site plan approval."
“Municipalities around the country should pay close attention to what happened in Bernards Township,” the society’s lead counsel, Adeel A. Mangi, said in a statement. “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.”
The Islamic Society of Basking Ridge went to court against Bernards Township last March after its application to build a 4,216-square-foot mosque was denied last January. The group alleged that in disapproving its bid, the planning board caved to anti-Muslim sentiment in the community and discriminated against the society based on religion.
Bernards Township repeatedly denied those allegations, saying the decision was based solely on land-use considerations.
Township spokesman Michael P. Turner said in a statement that rejection of the proposed mosque "was based on accepted land use criteria only." He added that the the township also denies the board's decision was discriminatory.
"The decision to accept the ISBR’s terms and the DOJ’s offer was not made lightly," Turner added. "However, in our opinion and that of our legal counsel, settling represents the most effective path forward to mitigate the financial risk of protracted litigation as well as resolve the issue of the ISBR's proposed house of worship in Liberty Corner.
Except for the deductible, insurers will cover the settlement payment without spending taxpayer funds, he said.
While some residents supported the society's plan to build a mosque, others fought against it. Some cited parking and traffic considerations as reasons for their opposition, suggesting that the society build elsewhere in town. Others in interviews with NBC News in January said a mosque made them uncomfortable.
Those tensions were laid bare when community members packed public hearings and expressed their feelings to local government officials.
The Islamic society has said in court papers that it was targeted by bigots as the lengthy public hearing process played out.
According to court filings, the planning board will hold one more meeting on its agreement to settle and the society’s application to build the mosque.
Attendees will be able to speak about the settlement site plan, but will not be permitted to make comments about Islam or Muslims, the agreement said.
The township zoning and land use laws in effect when the society submitted its application in April 2012 will govern site plan approval, court papers said.
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 society’s lawsuit said.
In a residential zone, the minimum lot size became 6 acres. The society's was 4 acres.
Before the ordinance was changed, eight of 10 houses of worship in residentially zoned areas were less than 6 acres, court papers 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 claimed.
In both the society and Justice Department settlements, the township agreed to amend the ordinance to limit restrictions placed on houses of worship.
“Bernards Township made decisions that treated the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge differently than other houses of worship,” Acting U.S. Attorney William E. Fitzpatrick said in a statement. “The settlement announced today corrects those decisions and ensures that members of this religious community have the same ability to practice their faith as all other religions.”
The settlement terms became public less than a week after a Muslim congregation in Bayonne, New Jersey, filed a lawsuit against the City of Bayonne.
That complaint alleges the city’s zoning board yielded to community animus and discriminated against Bayonne Muslims when it turned down its bid to build a mosque.