November 22, 2016
The United States Department of Justice filed a lawsuit Tuesday against a New Jersey town that denied a zoning approval for the construction of a mosque on land owned by a local Islamic society.
Federal prosecutors claim Bernards Township in Somerset County violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) in its denial of a zoning approval to the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, alleges that the township discriminated based on religion, applied inconsistent standards and imposed a substantial burden on the Islamic society's religious exercise. An amendment to the town's zoning ordinance also places unreasonable limitations on all religious assemblies, according to prosecutors.
“Sixteen years ago, Congress passed RLUIPA unanimously – with diverse religious and ideological support – because it recognized the fundamental right of all religious communities to build places of worship free from discrimination,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “No congregation or community should ever face unlawful barriers to practicing their religion and observing their faith.”
Under RLUIPA, religious assembles are protected against unjustified burdens and discrimination through multiple provisions upheld by the Civil Rights Division's Housing and Civil Enforcement Section.
“As alleged in the complaint, Bernards Township has treated the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge differently than other houses of worship,” said U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman of the District of New Jersey. “RLUIPA ensures that municipalities must treat religious land use applications like any other land use application. But here, township officials kept moving the goalposts by using ever-changing local requirements to effectively deny this religious community the same access as other faiths.”