By: Dr. Aref Assaf
UPDATE: June 29, 2011: A Federal judge in Trenton ruled Bridgewater actions are discriminatory and refused to dismiss the charges brought up by Al-Falah Center. Great start.
With full faith in the impartiality of our judicial system, a group of American Muslim citizens are going to court to freely practice their faith. On Tuesday, April 27, 2011, the town of Bridgewater, New Jersey was sued in federal court to force the township to allow their members ”to move forward with plans to renovate an existing building so it could be used as a mosque and community center.” The complaint asserts the town had acted in bad faith to change its master plan and is subjecting the applicant to the new zoning restrictions.
The initial application for an Islamic center was reviewed by the Township’s own officials and every recommended change to the application was accommodated. The mosque’s opponents employed the pretense of increased traffic. One memorable comment was made by a mother who warned about “ turban-wearing drivers coming down the hill while you are waiting with your kids for the school bus.” Traffic is a concern for all of us. If anything, the planned mosque will be sparsely trafficked except for a two day holiday. And the now vacant property was used for such events on many occasions.
Like similar anti-mosque campaigns, opponents will not openly declare their hate for Muslims. And I must hope and believe many are not motivated by such bigoted impulses. They instead ride on issues of traffic increase, loss of tax levy, noise pollution, and even increased anti-American activities. Some will even argue these superficial complaints mask deeply entrenched anti-Muslim sentiments that view Islam and its adherents as an existential threat to America.
It is worth noting that most other houses of worship in Bridgewater are also in residential areas, many of which are also on narrow two-lane roads with no shoulder. Yet those streets were specifically exempted – by name – in the rushed ordinance to change the town’s master plan so that they could continue to build and expand. The unanimous vote to rezone had only one intended victim: the Muslim residents of the town. Additionally, according to the suit, “the township cited supposed traffic concerns; but the township’s own documents and actions, as detailed in the complaint, show that these concerns were not real and were not the reason for the zoning changes.”
The decision to sue the town was a last resort for the Al-Farah Center leadership. Ultimately, with all doors closed and all options invalidated, the group decided to act and put their faith in the hands of an impartial judge. The lawsuit is motivated by the Muslim community’s belief in the justice of their case, encouraged by the tremendous multi-faith support received and especially hopeful for a fate similar to a case not long ago when another religious minority sued a town on the same grounds and they won.
The group behind the mosque strongly believes their choice of location is ideal for their needs and that it is located in an area already zoned for use as a religious facility. For many years, Muslims have rented the now-closed banquet hall to conduct religious services during their high religious holidays. No records have demonstrated that the use of the facility impacted traffic or negatively aggravated the quality of life issues so redundantly aired by opponents. The suit, therefore, accuses Bridgewater of illegally rushing through “a change to its zoning rules.” in a bid to exclude Muslims from practicing their faith.
The governing body of Bridgewater ought to look back at their history when, after forestalling plans by an Hindu group to expand their temple, the sect sued under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) which specifically forbids government action that “imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution.” The Bridgewater decision was a deliberate and a conscious attempt to derail plans for a mosque. Moreover, Bridgewater violated the Al-Farah Center’s federal constitutional rights under the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, as well as the corresponding protections of New Jersey’s Constitution. The complaint also references a number of federal and state statutory claims. The suit was dropped when the town finally agreed to the, albeit smaller, scale expansion plans for the temple.
The rush to pass new zoning laws must also be viewed in light of a New Jersey State law that is to take effect on May 1, 2011. This law, also known as the “Time of Submission” rule states: “[…], those development regulations which are in effect on the date of submission of an application for development shall govern the review of that application for development and any decision made with regard to that application for development. Any provisions of an ordinance, except those relating to health and public safety that are adopted subsequent to the date of submission of an application for development, shall not be applicable to that application for development.” It is our argument that the rush to pass the new zoning prohibitions was motivated by the desire to evade the applicability of the law. We were rejected our appeal that the town also exempt the mosque from the new restrictions. The town’s behavior, therefore, must be seen as a sheer example of a determined effort to disenfranchise citizens of their rights.
I have attended several public meetings held by the town’s planning board and I have spoken in favor of the mosque plans. I have done so in other similar cases where New Jersey Muslims have tried to build a place of worship only to be rejected. Bridgewater, I am afraid, will face the same costly and embarrassing fate of other towns that let bigotry instead of equality reign supreme. In every case American Muslim citizens resorted to the courts to redress their grievances, they won. In a recent email from one of the lawyers working on the case, the lawsuit also had the lofty goal of “to set the precedent for NJ and around the country that townships could have two sets of laws; one for all American and another one for Muslims. Our religion and our existence are at stake.”
The Muslim community feels confident they will win their case and they have amassed a great team of lawyers, public and elected officials to testify on their behalf. We hope and pray that the governing body in Bridgewater will want to save their taxpayers money by granting the necessary permits to build the mosque. It is the American thing to do.
Aref Assaf, PhD, President, American Arab Forum, a think-tank specializing in Arab and Muslim affairs.