A years-long battle against a mosque in New Jersey has escalated into allegations of bigotry and free speech violations. The drama is unfolding in Bernards Township, New Jersey, and the controversy began in 2011 when the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge submitted a proposal to build a large, 4,250-square-foot mosque in the midst of a posh residential neighborhood.
The New Jersey town’s planning board stepped into the mosque battle, reports Fox News, when discussions were taken up to determine whether or not the New Jersey mosque would be built or the plans scrapped. In December 2015, the New Jersey mosque battle seemed to be over when the town planning board nixed the proposal to build the large building in the middle of the multimillion-dollar homes that make up the Liberty Corner residential subdivision.
However, in reality, the battle over the mosque was far from over; a group of disgruntled members of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, led by a former mayor of the New Jersey town, has filed a lawsuit contending that the group was denied permission to build the mosque due to the “religious discrimination” of the town’s board of directors.
The proposed New Jersey mosque was to be built on roughly four acres of land owned by the ISBR. The location was to include a large building for worship and a 107-space parking lot.
“This is a land use matter. It never was about religion. Anyone who takes the time to review the transcripts or knows our Planning Board members would draw this conclusion quickly.”
According to the planning board, the decision to reject the proposed New Jersey mosque had nothing to do with religion, but rather with concerns over traffic and zoning. The ISBR disagrees, saying that the New Jersey mosque battle has exploded from something that should have been cut and dry into a clear case of religious discrimination and intolerance.
“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. These proceedings took place against a backdrop of ugly spectacle.”
The lawsuit against the New Jersey township was filed back in March because the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge says that the town planning board’s decision to deny the organization’s permit to build its desired mosque violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The act allows religious groups more flexibility than other organizations when it comes to zoning laws.
Some New Jersey town rejected the building of a Mosque. But they can build those damn Mormon temples like they were Walmarts... #yeesh— Dave Maes (@dash8dx) August 8, 2016
The lawsuit filed against the township at the heart of the New Jersey mosque battle has gotten some high-level support. In addition to being spearheaded by a former mayor of Bernards, the ACLU and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and Muslim Advocates are also publicly backing the ISBR in their federal religious discrimination lawsuit against Bernards.
Dozens of local Bernards residents who have chosen to take the opposite side in the New Jersey mosque battle, however, feel as though their first amendment rights are being attacked because they oppose the proposed New Jersey mosque. Roughly 33 Bernards residents who have spoken out repeatedly against the proposed mosque say that they have been targeted for harassment and even subpoenaed in the dead of night because they oppose the building of a large mosque in the heart of their residential neighborhood.
Some members of the ISBR believed that the local response to the New Jersey mosque battle constituted “intense hostility” from local residents. According to plaintiffs, including Pakistani-born former mayor Muhammad Ali Chaudhry, the public opposition of the proposed New Jersey mosque is not just centered on the proposed building, but also the religion of Islam itself.
The plaintiffs in the case further allege that those on the opposite side of the New Jersey mosque battle actually hired “objectors” to speak out in city planning board meetings about the proposed mosque.
At least one of the New Jersey residents who spoke out against the proposed mosque says that they were not a “recruited” objector and that after they spoke out at the meeting against the approval of the mosque, they were “targeted.”
“I spoke out once, at one meeting. I was tangentially involved. I clearly felt like it was a fishing expedition, that they were looking to find anything to support their case. For me, this has a chilling effect. It was scary. They came to my home in the middle of the night to serve me the papers. I feel like I will never speak up in a public forum again.”
The federal lawsuit filed in the New Jersey mosque battle reportedly includes a laundry list of incidents that the plaintiffs claim represent “anti-Muslim bias.” Currently, no member of the ISBR or their legal representatives are speaking to the media about the case; the New Jersey mosque battle is also being investigated by the U.S. Justice Department.
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