Plans for a mosque in Bayonne, New Jersey, are now at the center of a federal lawsuit.

Story highlights

Lawsuit follows protracted zoning battle over mosque construction

Suit alleges bias, spurred by anti-Muslim protests, in zoning process

CNN  — 

A Muslim community group in New Jersey has filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Bayonne, alleging anti-Muslim bias as the reason the city’s zoning board denied an application for a mosque.

The suit, filed last week on the eve of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, comes after a protracted zoning battle in the blue-collar suburb some five miles from New York City.

The complaint alleges that Bayonne’s zoning board, under pressure from anti-Muslim protesters, denied zoning variances to the proposed mosque that they readily granted to Christian churches.

The Department of Justice is investigating the situation, Matthew Reilly, spokesman for the US attorney’s office for the District of New Jersey, told CNN.

“Every single community has their own place of worship, we’re just asking for our own,” said Ali Hassan, a 25-year-old member of the Muslim community whose family moved to Bayonne from Egypt when he was in the third grade.

A former captain of the high school swim team, Hassan told CNN he’d always felt at home in Bayonne. It wasn’t until he encountered protesters at zoning board meetings that he said he’d experienced any animosity.

“People were invoking (Donald) Trump to come save Bayonne from this mosque,” Hassan said. “People were saying, ‘Remember 9/11. Stop the mosque.’ This is not the Bayonne I know.”

The protests, he said, came despite the fact that Muslims in Bayonne had been praying at a rented space for years.

“I was shocked,” he said. “Why now that we own a building?”

The mosque is proposed for an old warehouse at the end of a dead-end street on the city’s east side. The structure, built as a factory, previously housed a chapter of the Hired Guns Motorcycle Club, “made up of sworn law enforcement officers,” according to its website.

“We want to bring love and hope into that community,” Hassan said of the neighborhood. “I think we are in more of a position to do that than a motorcycle club.”

Traffic and noise concerns

To build the mosque into the existing space, Bayonne Muslims – the nonprofit organization that owns the space – went to the city in August 2015 to request zoning exemptions. It asked for requirements that a buffer between the existing building and adjacent properties be waived, and that it be able to provide less parking than required.

Ultimately, after three tumultuous public hearings, the proposal failed to gain approval at a March 6 meeting. The vote was 4-3 in favor of the project, but a supermajority – greater than the four votes in favor – was required under state law.

Mark Urban, chairman of the Bayonne Zoning Board who voted against the project, said Saturday he’d been advised by his attorney not to comment. But in the minutes of the board’s March 6 meeting, Urban said he didn’t think there was enough parking in the area to accommodate the mosque. Given that and concerns over general congestion, he said he couldn’t agree to support the application.

Zoning Commissioner Edouardo Ferrante also voted no, saying the project “is just too much for this small community,” according to the minutes. Commissioner Louis Lombardi said she was worried about the “negative impact on the neighborhood.”

“We expected completely different results,” Waheed Akbar, a spokesman for Bayonne Muslims, told CNN in April. “We provided everything that the city asked for.”

During the public hearings, some opponents expressed concern over the traffic and noise a mosque might bring to their dead-end street. Others cited verses from the Koran they asserted supported violence against non-Muslims.

According to the complaint, opponents of the mosque took out ads in the local newspaper calling for a boycott of two Muslim-owned local businesses and entreating readers to “Remember 9/11.”

A picture posted to the “Stop the Mosque in Bayonne” group on Facebook showed a man holding a sign that read, in part, “Democracy or Sharia Law.”

The complaint notes that two Christian churches were recently granted similar or more sweeping variances by the board.

“As is happening in towns across America, phony zoning issues were used to block our mosque because of bigotry against Muslims,” Abdul Hameed Butt, president of Bayonne Muslims, said through his attorney. “The Zoning Board subjected our application to completely different standards than those it applied to Christian churches.”

Jay Coffey, city attorney for Bayonne, declined to comment on the suit, citing policy to not speak about active litigation. An attorney for the zoning board could not immediately be reached for comment.

Requests for comment went unanswered by the administrators of the “Stop the Mosque in Bayonne” Facebook group.

‘Severe discrimination faced by Muslims’

The suit alleges violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The law, enacted in 2000, requires any zoning decision that puts a “substantial burden” on religious practice to be justified by a compelling interest on the part of the government. The law also grants the Department of Justice purview to sue on religious groups’ behalf.

According to a report on the law the department issued in 2016, “there is particularly severe discrimination faced by Muslims in land use.”

The Bayonne mosque is one of several cases in recent years where zoning laws have kept Muslims from building community centers or houses of worship. Mosque projects also faced opposition in Sterling Heights, Michigan; Wayne, New Jersey; and Henrico, Virginia.

CNN’s Laura Ly contributed to this report.