Muslims Sue Over Denial of Bid to Build Mosque in New Jersey Suburb
In a prosperous New Jersey suburb about an hour west of Manhattan, a retired AT&T executive decided with some friends to open a mosque in the town where he has lived for nearly 40 years, been on the board of education, led a task force to create the town’s community center and even served as mayor.
About 65 people attended the congregation’s Friday prayer services, which were held in rented halls or sometimes in parks.
On the surface, the process seemed straightforward: In November 2011, the group, the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, led by the former mayor, Mohammad Ali Chaudry, bought a four-acre plot in an area of Basking Ridge where zoning permitted houses of worship. The group’s architects and engineers argued that the plan complied by a wide margin with every conceivable building requirement.
To avoid the kind of vitriolic dispute that erupted in a nearby town when a different group tried to build a mosque, the society said, it tried to minimize features that might be seen as ostentatious. The mosque would not have a dome, and its minarets would be styled like chimneys of nearby homes, at heights lower than the steeples of the churches in town. In all, the building would be 4,252 square feet. Within it would be a prayer hall of about 1,600 square feet with room for 150 people.
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After presenting the plan to the board in early 2012, Mr. Chaudry, who has a Ph.D. in economics from Tufts University, predicted that the mosque would be built within the year.
What followed were 39 public hearings, and nearly four years of demands by town officials and planning board members for one change after another. Each solution proposed or agreed to by the Islamic Society led to objections on other grounds. Often, members of the public raised issues — some saying that a bucolic area was not the right setting for a mosque, or that it might interfere with a volunteer fire department station across the road.
A leading opponent of the mosque project, who has said that Islamic Shariah law is “one of the greatest threats to American values and liberties,” led a relentless campaign of challenges to virtually every aspect of the project.
The application to build the mosque was finally denied in December by the planning board of Bernards Township, which includes Basking Ridge. The site remains as it was when the Islamic Society bought it in 2011.
In a lawsuit filed on Thursday in federal court, the society accused the planning board of breaking a law unanimously passed by Congress in 2000 protecting houses of worship from being unduly burdened by land use regulations. In a 111-page complaint, the Islamic Society said the decision also violated the rights of its members to freely practice their religion and to enjoy equal protection of the law.
“What should have been a simple board approval for a permitted use devolved into a Kafkaesque process,” said the suit, filed on behalf of the society by Adeel A. Mangi of the Manhattan law firm Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler. “These proceedings took place against a backdrop of ugly spectacle.”
Lori Caratzola, a resident of Basking Ridge who opposed the mosque, attended virtually all the hearings and regularly put questions to the technical witnesses, said that the board had made a sound decision, strictly on land use grounds. Although she is not named as a defendant in the suit, her affiliations with anti-Islamic groups and websites are cited. “I stand by that,” Ms. Caratzola said when asked about her support for the American Public Policy Alliance, which maintains that American legal institutions are under threat from Islamic codes.
Those views were irrelevant, she maintained, to the board’s decision.
“Let’s say someone or people did have feelings about Islam — the fact that every single terrorist attack in the last 20 years was committed by Muslims — they never spoke about that during the planning board meetings,” Ms. Caratzola said. “Is that person as an American citizen not allowed to voice their concerns to the planning board? Are we not allowed to voice concerns about a religion, or is it not O.K. just about Islam?” (Her count of terrorism excludes mass shootings in the United States, most of which have been carried out by people not associated with Islam.)
The decisive moment in the planning board’s work came early on, when it turned down the proposal for a 50-car parking lot, although the board’s own planner, as well as the township’s, appeared to have initially accepted it. The township’s formula for church parking, one spot for every three people, “is not applicable to mosques, or for that matter, to ‘houses of worship,’” the board’s lawyer and planner wrote in a January 2013 memo. “By its express terms, this standard only applies to ‘churches,’ ‘auditoriums’ and ‘theaters.’”
After nearly a year of haggling, a group opposed to the mosque, the Bernards Township Citizens for Responsible Development, presented an engineer who said a 107-car parking lot was needed. Almost immediately, the board adopted that standard.
Doubling the size of the parking lot led to a host of other micro-concerns, like dealing with the possibility that a neighbor 200 yards away would see headlights through a canopy of trees; that the drainage would be inadequate; whether a fence would aesthetically please; and where children would be dropped off for Sunday school.
The planning board rejected the application for the mosque in December.
During the process, one blogger opposed to the mosque explained that the strategy was to wear out the mosque proponents.
“Our goal is to force the township planning board to put a stay on the decision, order new studies, and drag the issue into neverland,” the blogger wrote, under the name weiminlu99.
The township, meanwhile, doubled to six acres the land required for houses of worship, drastically increasing costs.
The Islamic Society’s complaint opens with a statement by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in June 1957, when he spoke at the inauguration of a mosque in Washington.
“And I should like to assure you, my Islamic friends, that under the American Constitution, under American tradition, and in American hearts, this center, this place of worship, is just as welcome as could be a similar edifice of any other religion,” said President Eisenhower, who served as the supreme commander of American forces in Europe during World War II. “Indeed, America would fight with her whole strength for your right to have here your own church and worship according to your conscience.”
Correction: March 10, 2016
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the group opposed to the building of the mosque. It is the Bernards Township Citizens for Responsible Development, not the Brooks Township Committee for Responsible Development.
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