New Jersey town to pay $3.25 million to end lawsuits over rejected mosque

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By Joseph Ax

A New Jersey town will pay $3.25 million and provide anti-discrimination training to its officials to resolve allegations by the U.S. government and a Muslim group that the town illegally rejected plans for a mosque.

The agreement between Bernards Township, which is located about 30 miles (48 km) west of New York City, and the U.S. Department of Justice will allow the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge to build a new prayer facility.

The town’s governing body voted 4-1 last week to approve settling separate lawsuits filed last year by the Justice Department and by the Islamic Society, but the terms of the deal were only made public Tuesday.

The town did not admit any wrongdoing under the settlement agreements.

The Justice Department complaint, filed in November in the waning days of Barack Obama’s presidency, said the town’s planning officials deliberately set out impossibly strict requirements that the Islamic Society could not meet, after members of the public raised objections based on religious bias.

The town had previously allowed the construction of churches and synagogues under similar circumstances without objection, according to the center’s lawyers.

The Islamic Society spent four years seeking approval, including 39 separate hearings.

A spokesman for the town, Michael Turner, said officials concluded that settling the lawsuits would “mitigate the financial risk of protracted litigation.”

“The township maintains that the denial of the planning board was based on accepted land use criteria only,” he said.

Bernards Township will pay $3.25 million in damages and legal fees to the Islamic Society. The law firm that represented the Islamic Society, Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler, said it would donate the fees it receives in the settlement to charity.

“We look forward to welcoming people of all faiths and backgrounds to our mosque,” said Mohammad Ali Chaudry, president of the society.

Town officials will undergo training on the federal law that bars local governments from imposing an undue burden on houses of worship through land use regulations, as well as “diversity and inclusion” of Muslims and other groups, according to the agreements.

The U.S. government has other pending lawsuits against localities over denials of mosques, including Bensalem, Pennsylvania; Des Plaines, Illinois; and Culpeper County, Virginia.

“Federal law protects people of all religious communities from discrimination and unlawful obstacles when they seek to build a place of worship,” acting Assistant Attorney General Tom Wheeler of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Leslie Adler)