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N.J. Town Must Pay Islamic Group $3.25 Million To Settle Discrimination Lawsuit

Muslim worshippers pray during a 2016 service at the Bernards Township Community Center in Basking Ridge, N.J.

A New Jersey town must pay $3.25 million to a local Islamic society and allow it to build a mosque, ending a years-long dispute.

This is the result of settlements finalized on Tuesday stemming from two separate federal lawsuits against Bernards Township, in central New Jersey.

The $3.25 million settles the lawsuit filed by the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge. And the ISBR will be allowed to move forward with its plans to build a mosque as a result of a lawsuit filed Justice Department.

"Federal law requires towns to treat religious land use applications like any other land use application," acting U.S. Attorney of the District of New Jersey William Fitzpatrick said in a statement. "Bernards Township made decisions that treated the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge differently than other houses of worship."

Both the Justice Department and the ISBR argued that Bernards Township violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which protects "individuals, houses of worship, and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning and landmarking laws."

Mohammed Ali Chaudry, president of the society, told NJ.com that they 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."

This dispute started in 2011, when the ISBR purchased a home with the intention of building a mosque in a residential zoning district where it was, at that time, acceptable to establish places of worship.

But the plan was met with public opposition. The ISBR filed for site approval in 2012, which initiated 39 public hearings that spanned more than three years. "The Planning Board has never held such a large number of hearings for any previous site plan application," according to the Justice Department's complaint.

In Oct. 2013, the township enacted a new ordinance that "amended the classification of a house of worship from a permitted use in residential zoning districts to a conditional use," the complaint added.

The new ordinance also required places of worship to be on a lot of at least 6 acres, larger than the 4-acre property where the ISBR wanted to build a mosque. Eight of the 11 houses of worship built and approved by the Planning Board before the rule was enacted were on lots smaller than 6 acres, the complaint says.

The Planning Board ultimately rejected the application in 2015, saying it was particularly concerned about its number of parking spaces. The plans had 50 spaces allotted, at a ratio of one for every three worshippers, which is the usual standard applied to other places of worship. But the Planning Board said the mosque needed 107 spaces.

The Justice Department said that higher number came from a "traffic engineer hired by a group of mosque opponents," while the town said it came from a report introduced by an expert hired by the plaintiffs.

The planning board also said the mosque must follow more stringent storm-water management and fire lane procedures than those required of other institutions, according to the complaint.

Michael Turner, a spokesman for Bernards Township, denies the claims of discrimination. "The Planning Board denial was based on legitimate land use and safety concerns which Plaintiffs refused to address," Turner added.

He said that the decision to settle was "not made lightly" and that the township is a "diverse and inclusive community."

The Associated Press notes two other recent lawsuits on the same issue in New Jersey. "A similar lawsuit cost nearby Bridgewater Township almost $8 million in a 2014 settlement," the wire service states. "Last week, a Muslim group sued the city of Bayonne, claiming its proposal to convert an abandoned warehouse into a mosque and community center was unfairly voted down amid a climate of hostility and religious intolerance."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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