A Town in New Jersey is Getting a New Mosque—and Why it Matters

The story of how a new mosque was approved for construction in Bernard Township, New Jersey, is a classic case of good news and bad news.

First the good news. As of May 30, Bernard Township will allow the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge to build a new mosque.

Members of the Basking Ridge Islamic Society praying.
Members of the Basking Ridge Islamic Society pray.

The bad news is that their right to do so was in dispute since 2012, was the subject of 39 public hearings and was resolved only after the filing of lawsuits by the Islamic Society and the United States Justice Department.

After granting the necessary permits, the township must now pay the Islamic Society $3.2 million in damages and attorney fees. The township has also, presumably, paid outside lawyers a hefty amount to defend them in these lawsuits. If Bernard Township is like most municipalities, that money could have filled a lot of potholes and supported many other services that are typically strapped for cash.

How is it that a town would welcome a Muslim mayor but fight tooth and nail against a mosque? I don’t have an answer. Life can be complicated.

Throughout the proceedings, township officials claimed that their refusal to grant the Islamic Society the right to build was motivated by religiously neutral objections regarding such things as automobile traffic, parking and similar matters—the kind of issues that form the basis of land-use disputes all over the country without regard to race or creed.

However, a federal judge didn’t see it their way. In a December 2016 ruling that put the case on its path to eventual settlement in May, U.S. District Judge Michael Shipp pointed out that the town’s planning board had, among other things:

  • Adopted much tougher parking requirements for the mosque than for Christian churches, with no clear objective basis;
  • Made demands on the Islamic Society that had never been made of any other applicant;
  • Continually made new demands when the old ones were met;
  • While the application was pending, changed the zoning ordinance that could have made it impossible for the Islamic Society to build on the land it had acquired.

It was also hard to ignore the anti-Muslim bias displayed by some residents during the hearings and—even more telling—in the private emails of the planning board members that came out in the course of the litigation. One member even confirmed in an online diary that the Islamic Society’s application was treated differently from others.

On the other hand, another piece of good news in the long dispute is that, in addition to assistance from the courts and the Justice Department, the Islamic Society was supported by Christians and Jews who stood up for its right to be treated fairly, like every other religious group.

Interestingly enough, Bernard Township achieved a different kind of distinction over a decade earlier when Muslim Ali Choudry became its mayor—the first ever Pakistani American mayor in the United States. Mr. Choudry is now the head of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge and led its long and, ultimately, successful battle. How is it that a town would welcome a Muslim mayor but fight tooth and nail against a mosque? I don’t have an answer. Life can be complicated. But maybe if the planning board members had asked themselves the same question five years ago, they could have saved all concerned a lot of time and money.

Photo by Julio Cortez/AP

Jeffrey Murphy
Paralegal, researcher & amateur historian.