NJ suburb sued over denial of mosque proposal

AP News
Posted: Apr 27, 2011 9:36 PM
NJ suburb sued over denial of mosque proposal

An Islamic group has sued a suburban town it says engaged in religious discrimination by abruptly changing zoning regulations to prevent the opening of a mosque.

Members of the Al Falah Center and local residents filed suit Tuesday in federal court in Trenton against Bridgewater Township's mayor, council and planning officials.

The lawsuit says the sudden zoning changes thwarted plans the group had been working on, with the township's knowledge, to convert a closed banquet hall in a mostly residential area into a mosque and community center. It accuses town officials of bowing to pressure from protesters and an anti-mosque Internet campaign.

The Bridgewater protests were reminiscent of opposition to an Islamic center and mosque planned in New York City near the World Trade Center site. Developers have envisioned an Islamic center, a large health club, a day care center and a cultural gallery built over a subterranean mosque just blocks from where Islamic extremists used hijacked airplanes to destroy the twin towers and kill thousands of people on Sept. 11, 2001. Supporters say allowing the center to be built would reflect American values of tolerance and religious freedom, while opponents argue locating a mosque so close to the attack site would be insensitive to the victims' memories.

The Al Falah Center, according to court papers, is a nonprofit group formed by local Muslim residents of different ethnicities, backgrounds and professions who said they had been renting out various locations around Bridgewater for 10 years as they searched for a suitable place to build a permanent mosque to serve Muslims in and around the central New Jersey suburb.

The center members found a closed former inn with a large banquet hall on more than 7.5 acres of land that was zoned for "permitted conditional use" for houses of worship, and they drew up plans to renovate it into a mosque, day care facility, religious school and community center.

The lawsuit claims the site plan, with details of available parking and other requirements, was discussed with the town planning board, but the first public hearing on the application had to be adjourned because so many protesters showed up, exceeding the venue's capacity.

"What should have been an uncomplicated approval of the application then foundered in a storm of anti-Muslim sentiment and hysteria," the lawsuit says.

Town officials voted to change the rules for houses of worship, prohibiting them in residential zones unless they fronted on state highways, court papers say. The ruling affected only the mosque, the suit says, as 17 existing religious facilities in Bridgewater _ several in residential areas _ were allowed to remain. The suit seeks to block enforcement of the ordinance and allow the group's application to be processed.

A message left for the mayor of Bridgewater on Wednesday was not immediately returned.

The lead counsel for Al Falah is Arnold & Porter LLP, the pro bono partner of The Brennan Center for Justice. It declined to comment on active litigation. Archer & Greiner and the Asian American Legal Defense Fund also are supporting the Islamic group's lawsuit.