Written by Don Byrd
A federal judge in New Jersey has ruled in favor of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, which sued the Township of Bernards for denying a construction permit application for a new mosque. A local planning board, the court ruled, violated the religious liberty rights of the plaintiffs under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) by treating their application differently than they treat those of other faiths.
Central to the case is the requirement in a local ordinance that “churches” provide parking spaces at a 3:1 ratio between seats and parking spaces. The court found that the ordinance is neutral but the town’s application of it was not, and thus failed RLUIPA’s prohibition on discrimination in land-use decisions on the basis of religion.
The court explained:
Defendants insist, without explanation, that the Parking Ordinance’s use of the term “churches” does not include mosques . . .Upon reviewing the relevant provisions, the Court finds that the Parking Ordinance’s 3:1 ratio applies to churches, synagogues, and mosques. Accordingly, the Parking Ordinance is neutral and generally applicable,
According to Defendants’ interpretation, the Parking Ordinance makes a clear distinction between Christian churches and Muslim mosques . . .Defendants’ application of the Parking Ordinance clearly lacks neutrality and general applicability because it expressly applies different standards on the basis of religion. . . .[Basking Ridge’s application of the] Parking Ordinance categorically treats places of worship differently on the basis of religion . . . The Supreme Court has never upheld such a law.
The increase in community conflicts over proposed mosque constructions around the country is one of the more troubling religious liberty developments in recent years. Fortunately, RLUIPA is designed to protect congregations of all faiths.
The Baptist Joint Committee signed an amicus brief in this case along 17 other groups in an effort led by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The broad coalition (which included the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Sikh Coalition, and the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists) urged the court to reject the town’s arguments in defense of its discriminatory treatment of the Islamic Society. Thankfully, the court issued a thorough and thoughtful opinion that did just that.
Local construction permit applications by houses of worship should not be subject to the religious preferences of zoning board members, or of fearful citizens. Americans of every religious tradition enjoy the right to exercise their faith, which includes the right to build houses of worship without facing unequal treatment.
For more, see the Baptist Joint Committee’s Resource Page on RLUIPA.