BERNARDS — The lawsuit filed last week alleging that Bernards Township violated federal law by rejecting plans for a mosque marked the ninth time since 2010 the Department of Justice has sued based on federal religious land use law.
All nine lawsuits involve a Muslim mosque or school. The Justice Department has prevailed in six of those cases and three are pending.
“What we’ve seen in the past several years is a disturbing increase in anti-Muslim rhetoric in terms of communities coming to town planning board hearings and voicing their opposition to a mosque or Islamic school under the pretext of routine zoning board issues,” said Brenda Abdelall, director, Program to Strengthen Charities at Washington, D.C.-based Muslim Advocates.
Congress passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act in 2000 in response to an increasing number of towns across the country using local zoning codes to prevent religious communities from building places of worship.
Bernards Township is the latest to face a lawsuit under the rule. The Islamic Society filed its application for a 4,252-square-foot mosque to be built on a 4.3-acre site on Church Street in April 2012.
The Department of Justice provided an update in July on its 17 investigationssince 2010 involving the Religious Land Use law.
“Another troubling statistic that emerges from the last five-and-a-half years reinforces the conclusion that there is particularly severe discrimination faced by Muslims in land use,” according to the report.
“While 84 percent of non-Muslim investigations opened by the Department resulted in a positive resolution without the United States or private parties filing suit, in mosque and Islamic school cases, only 20 percent have resulted in a positive resolution without the filing of a RLUIPA suit,” the report states.
Here’s a look at the nine Justice Department lawsuits filed against towns since 2010:
UNITED STATES VS. BERNARDS TOWNSHIP – On Nov. 22, 2016, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the township alleging it violated federal law in its denial of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge’s plan to build a mosque. The proposed site is located in a part of the township that, at the time of the society’s zoning request, permitted the construction of places of worship.
UNITED STATES VS. BENSALEM TOWNSHIP, Pa. – On July 21, 2016, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Bensalem Township, Pennsylvania, alleging that the township violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 when it denied zoning approval to allow the Bensalem Masjid to build a mosque on three adjoining parcels of land in the township.
UNITED STATES VS. PITTSFIELD, Mich. – In October 2015, the Justice Department filed suit against the township alleging that it improperly denied rezoning of a parcel on which the Michigan Islamic Academy, currently located on a small lot in Ann Arbor, wished to build a new school. A settlement was reached on Sept. 29, 2016 in which the township has agreed to permit the academy to construct a school on the vacant parcel of land, to treat the school and all other religious groups equally and to publicize its non-discrimination policies and practices. The township agreed to pay $1.7 million for damages and attorney fees.