(CNN)An Islamic society in New Jersey is allowed to move forward with plans to build a mosque, and the town that had denied it permission will pay $3.25 million, as the result of settlements finalized Tuesday in two federal lawsuits.
New Jersey town to pay $3.25 million in lawsuit over mosque
The two lawsuits were the latest in a nearly four-year dispute between the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge and Bernards Township, New Jersey, which had denied zoning approval for the Islamic society to build a mosque. It would have been the first and only mosque in the town, and the society bought the proposed mosque site because zoning of the land permitted houses of worship, according to court documents.
In March 2016, the Islamic society sued the town. The Department of Justice filed suit against Bernards Township in November. Monday's settlements resolve both lawsuits, according to court documents.
"Federal law requires towns to treat religious land use applications like any other land use application," acting US Attorney for New Jersey William E. Fitzpatrick said in a statement. "Bernards Township made decisions that treated the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge differently than other houses of worship. 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 DOJ's complaint alleged the township denied the application to build a mosque using standards it had not applied to other religious and nonreligious groups in the past.
The complaint also alleged that while the Islamic society's application was pending, the township revised its zoning code so the Islamic society application couldn't meet the requirements.
The complaints also detailed reports of intimidation and harassment in the community, noting that "fliers, social media and websites denounced the mosque and were filled with anti-Muslim bigotry and references to terrorism and the 9/11 attacks," according to court documents.
Michael Turner, spokesman for Bernards Township, said in a statement the township had entered the settlement on the advice of counsel as "represents the most effective path forward" and that the planning board's rejection of the Islamic society's application to build a mosque was always based on accepted land use criteria and was never discriminatory.
"The settlement agreement addresses the land use concerns of the planning board and incorporates conditions previously agreed upon by the ISBR and the planning board during the application process and deliberations," Turner said, "Bernards Township is a diverse and inclusive community, where for years the ISBR congregation have practiced their religion along with their neighbors unimpeded, using township facilities at the Bernards Township Community Center and at Dunham Park."
"We are very pleased by this resolution and hope to receive prompt approval to build our mosque," said Dr. Mohammed Ali Chaudry, the named plaintiff in the lawsuit and president of the Islamic society. "We look forward to welcoming people of all faiths and backgrounds to our mosque. Our doors will be open to anyone interested in building bridges to promote harmony in the community and peace in the world."
Chaudry is an economist who has lived with his family in the Basking Ridge section of Bernards Township nearly 40 years since he emigrated from Pakistan, and has served on the Bernards Township board of education and as mayor of the town, according to the complaint.
The Islamic society first submitted its building application in 2012, according to court records. In December 2015, after 39 public hearings -- more than for any previous site plan application, the DOJ said -- the planning board voted to deny the application.
"Municipalities around the country should pay close attention to what happened in Bernards Township," Adeel Mangi, the lawyer who represented the Islamic society, said in a statement. "The American Muslim community has the legal resources, the allies, and the determination to stand up for its constitutional rights in court and will do so."
The Bernards Township mosque is one of several cases in recent years in which local officials have been accused of using zoning laws to keep Muslims from building community centers or houses of worship. Mosque projects also faced opposition in Bayonne, New Jersey; Sterling Heights, Michigan; Wayne, New Jersey; and Henrico, Virginia.