Settlements With New Jersey Suburb Clear Way for Proposed Mosque

A proposed mosque that had been blocked by officials in a New Jersey suburb will now be allowed to move forward after settlements were reached on Tuesday in lawsuits that accused the township of discriminating against Muslims.

Officials in the suburb, Bernards Township in Somerset County, voted last week to agree to the settlements, which will require the township to pay a little more than $3 million.

The township will also have to back down on some of its previous requirements — including a request for more than twice the number of parking spaces originally planned — which were cited in the lawsuits as complications created to stymie the mosque’s construction. In addition, township officials will have to participate in diversity and inclusion training.

The Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, a Muslim organization in an unincorporated neighborhood in the township, bought a four-acre plot in 2011 in an area where zoning permitted houses of worship. It developed plans to build a mosque of more than 4,000 square feet, with a prayer room large enough for 150 people. The group said it tailored its plans so that the mosque would blend into the neighborhood, forgoing a dome and designing its minarets to look like chimneys and be shorter than the steeples of churches in town.

But after four years, and dozens of public meetings, the township’s planning board denied the application, citing reasons such as storm water management and potential disruption to neighbors.

Last year, the Islamic Society, a 70-member group led by a former township mayor, filed a suit in Federal District Court accusing the township of turning “what should have been a simple board approval” into a “Kafkaesque process.”

Soon after, the United States Justice Department filed its own suit, claiming that the township had discriminated against the group because of its members’ faith. It accused the township of violating a federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, by making the organization abide by standards and procedures that the township had not applied to other groups.

The settlements follow a ruling from a federal judge in December that found that the township and its officials had violated the group’s rights.

“Bernards Township made decisions that treated the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge differently than other houses of worship,” William E. Fitzpatrick, the acting United States attorney for New Jersey, said in a statement. “The settlement announced today corrects those decisions and ensures that members of this religious community have the same ability to practice their faith as all other religions.”

The township will also have to cooperate with the Islamic Society as it applies for the necessary approvals to start construction.

“We look forward to welcoming people of all faiths and backgrounds to our mosque,” Mohammad Ali Chaudry, the president of the Islamic Society, said in a statement. “Our doors will be open to anyone interested in building bridges to promote harmony in the community and peace in the world.”

The mosque proposal set off an uproar in the community, with public meetings crowded with angry residents. Anti-Muslim sentiments circulated on fliers and in social media posts. The Islamic Society’s mailbox was smashed, and a vandal later covered the society’s initials on the mailbox, I.S.B.R., with “ISIS.”

Some critics of the proposal argued that their opposition did not stem from antipathy toward Muslim people but was rooted instead in more practical concerns. In a statement on Tuesday, the township argued that it had a responsibility to ensure that development projects like the mosque “do not unduly impact others’ ability to peacefully and quietly enjoy their own property.”

Legal experts and civil rights groups said it had become increasingly common in recent years for local governments across the country to use zoning laws to try to prevent mosques and Islamic schools from being built. Bridgewater Township, also in Somerset County, agreed in 2014 to pay nearly $8 million to settle a similar case.

A Muslim group filed suit against Bayonne, N.J., last week after a zoning board denied its plans to convert a warehouse into a mosque and community center amid protests like those in Bernards Township. Officials at the United States attorney’s office for New Jersey said Tuesday that the Justice Department was investigating the allegations of discrimination.

In Bernards Township, officials maintained that their actions were not discriminatory and said the decision to settle was made to end a yearslong ordeal and reduce the financial risk posed by continuing litigation.

“Bernards Township is a diverse and inclusive community, where for years the I.S.B.R. congregation have practiced their religion along with their neighbors unimpeded,” Michael P. Turner, a township spokesman, said in a statement.

He noted that the society had assembled in a public community center and park and that Bernards Township had elected Mr. Chaudry, a Pakistani American who has lived there for more than 40 years, as mayor not long after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“We remain a united township,” Mr. Turner said, “where all are welcome.”

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