After years of fighting, 39 public hearings, and the involvement of the Department of Justice, Bernards Township in New Jersey settled out of court with the Muslim group’s demands. It appears not only has the team won the right to build the mosque but in a sad twist of fate, the small township will be partially paying for it. According to a report from the local media:
“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.”
This settlement could prove devastating for their local budget, but this does not seem to phase the lawyers pushing for the mosque to be built and funded by the local community. Even more disturbing is the fact that the group that handled the case made a threat of sorts to other communities facing similar actions. According to the society’s lead counsel Adeel A. Mangi:
“Municipalities around the country should pay close attention to what happened in Bernards Township. 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.”
That chilling statement backs small towns into a corner as they face huge bills for extended court cases or pay off the group in the form of settlements. The sad thing, in this case, was that the local authorities did have very valid reasons to turn down requests for the mosque to be built based on the building codes locally. An essential part of this settlement was that the local authorities still maintained evidence that the building plans are against the local laws. According to a statement made on behalf of the local board members:
“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 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.”
In most cases, a settlement is the last word in the case. It may be just the start for this small town as society president and suit plaintiff Mohammad Ali Chaudry stated:
“We are very pleased by this resolution and hope to receive prompt approval to build our mosque. We look forward to welcoming people of all faiths and backgrounds to our mosque.”
As a part of the settlement, the group did give into part of the original request for over 100 parking spaces to be included on-site. This large of a parking lot was required by local authorities to accommodate the massive mosque, but the builders refused. It is interesting that even though the group contends their request was turned down based on religion, they did change it to meet the codes they formerly ignored.
The group wanting to build the mosque fought back against the requirement to provide adequate parking for their building and said this was somehow against their faith. The idea was that they were being forced to provide what they saw as being far more parking than other religious buildings.
Beyond the size of the parking lot, the group was also fighting zoning laws about the scale of the lot they needed to build a new structure. Local laws stated all churches or house of worship were required to be on a lot that was at least 6 acres. The lot in question was only 4 acres. The religious group felt they were being targeted by this requirement.
To avoid a costly trial and many more years of public hearings, the township made a special exception for the group. It is unclear how changing local zoning laws to accommodate the group was anything less than giving them special treatment. This exception was billed by the Department of Justice as a fix for mistreatment in the past.
According to a statement made by acting U.S. Attorney William E. Fitzpatrick:
“Bernards Township made decisions that treated the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge differently than other houses of worship. 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.”