A New Jersey suburb known for its tree-lined streets and stately, multimillion-dollar homes has been transformed into a battleground over both a proposed mosque and the free speech rights of residents who oppose the project.
Bernards, a township of about 27,000 an hour west of New York City, has been cleaved by controversy since 2011, when its Planning Board took up a proposal for a 4,250-square-foot mosque in a residential neighborhood known as Liberty Corner. The applicant, Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, is led by a former Bernards mayor and has filed a federal civil rights suit accusing members of the board of religious discrimination in ultimately rejecting the project.
Some 33 residents who spoke out against the project at dozens of public meetings have been subpoenaed in an effort by the plaintiffs to prove bigotry drove the decision.
“This is a land use matter. It never was about religion,” current Bernards Mayor Carol Bianchi told FoxNews.com. “Anyone who takes the time to review the transcripts or knows our Planning Board members would draw this conclusion quickly.”
The Planning Board and many residents say they were concerned about traffic and other zoning issues, but the lawsuit accuses town officials of violating theReligious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which gives religious institutions flexibility when it comes to zoning law restrictions on property use. The U.S. Department of Justice is separatley investigating the case.
The Islamic group has won the support of several civil and religious liberty advocates, including the ACLU, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and Muslim Advocates, a San Francisco-based legal and educational advocacy group.
“I came to America almost 50 years ago with a firm belief in the values that America represents, including freedom of religion before the law,” Mohammad Ali Chaudry told The Bernardsville News after the Becket Fund filed a brief in support of his group. “The mosque is part of my American Dream.”