Written by Don Byrd
The Justice Department today announced a settlement in the highly followed dispute over the denial of a mosque in Bernards Township, New Jersey. This agreement finally brings to an end five years of legal battles, heated arguments, and ugly expressions of religious animus toward Muslims in response to the dispute.
The Atlantic reports on details of the agreement, which was reached after the Township voted to settle suits brought both by the Islamic Society and the Department of Justice.
As part of the settlement, the mosque plan will move forward. Leaders of the township will go through training on federal religious-freedom law. And the local board will have to establish new processes for resolving complaints. The settlement also resolves a lawsuit brought separately by the Islamic Society against Bernards Township, which will pay the Society $3.25 million in damages and attorney’s fees.
A diverse group of religious liberty advocates including the Baptist Joint Committee urged a federal court to rule that under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), the Township violated the free exercise rights of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge. These advocates represent a variety of religious beliefs and perspectives, but understand a central truth forming the heart of that law: if government can turn away the Islamic Society here for such flimsy reasons, the religious liberty of all is threatened.
A press release by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty adds:
“Our constitution guarantees every religious congregation equal treatment under the law,” said Hannah Smith, senior counsel at Becket, which filed an amicus brief in support of the Islamic Society. “Every religion is a minority in some part of the country. If one religious group can be denied equal treatment because of hostility to their faith, then all religious groups are at risk.”
RLUIPA continues to be a powerful tool against unnecessary barriers to the free exercise of religion. The law bars local governments from using zoning regulations to restrict construction permits, like the one sought in this case, unless the government has a compelling interest that can be furthered only by such restriction.
To learn more about RLUIPA, see the Baptist Joint Committee’s RLUIPA resource page.