Written by Don Byrd

I am a little late to this, but last month, a judge declined to dismiss a lawsuit brought by the Garden State Islamic Center (GSIC) in New Jersey, which makes religious discrimination claims under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution and under the Religious Land use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The plaintiff Muslim group argues that the denial of a final construction permit by the City of Vineland improperly restricts their religious exercise and discriminates against them in light the town’s handling of a permit request by a Christian church.

The judge rejected arguments by the city that the sewer output would exceed the levels allowed by the initial permit application and required a state determination for final certification. Here is an excerpt from coverage by the New Jersey Law Journal:

“By characterizing the flow calculations in a manner which compels state review, the city is forcing GSIC to incur additional expenses and engage in additional expenses associated with that process, delay the full enjoyment of GSIC, and to keep GSIC under its thumb,” [Judge Joseph] Rodriguez wrote.

“Construing the language of RLUIPA broadly, because the sewage regulation at issue is incorporated by reference into the City’s Land Use Ordinance, it qualifies as a zoning law. To hold otherwise would put form over function,” the judge wrote.

Rodriguez also denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss the equal protection claims, finding that the plaintiffs’ contention that they were treated differently than a Christian church was sufficient in alleging an intention to discriminate.

Meanwhile, a nonprofit Muslim organization in Virginia has officially asked for a variance, citing the religious liberty protections in RLUIPA, from a Stafford County ordinance barring a proposed cemetery. In April, the Justice Department began an investigation into Stafford’s application of the restrictive zoning law at issue, which regulates the distance between cemeteries and wells and was enacted after county officials learned that the land may be used for an Islamic cemetery.

For more on this topic, see the Baptist Joint Committee’s resource page on RLUIPA.