Justice Department and Bernards Township (NJ) Settle Lawsuit Over Alleged RLUIPA Violations
The Justice Department today announced an agreement with Bernards Township, New Jersey, to resolve allegations that the Township violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) when it denied zoning approval to allow the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge to build a mosque. The agreement also resolves allegations that, while the zoning application was pending, the Township revised its zoning code to unreasonably limit any house of worship from building in the Township.
The agreement resolves a lawsuit the Department filed in November 2016, after the Islamic Society applied to build on property owned that permitted places of worship as-of-right. A separate agreement resolving a similar lawsuit brought by the Islamic Society against Bernards Township has also been reached.
The United States’ complaint alleged that Bernards Township discriminated against the Islamic Society based on its religion and the religion of its members when it denied the zoning application; applied standards and procedures on the Islamic Society that it had not applied to other religious and non-religious assemblies in the past; and imposed a substantial burden on the Islamic Society’s religious exercise. The United States also alleged that Bernards Township’s revised zoning code imposes unreasonable limitations on all religious assemblies in the Township, in violation of RLUIPA.
As part of the agreement, Bernards Township will permit the Islamic Society to build the mosque. The Township also has agreed to provide training on the requirements of RLUIPA to its officials and employees and publicize its non-discrimination policies, among other remedial measures. Additionally, the Township will amend its zoning ordinance to limit the zoning restrictions placed on houses of worship. In a separate agreement between the Islamic Society and the Township, the Township agreed to pay $3.25 million in damages and attorney’s fees.
“Federal law protects people of all religious communities from discrimination and unlawful obstacles when they seek to build a place of worship," said Acting Assistant Attorney General Tom Wheeler of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. "Through this agreement, the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge and its members will be able to build a mosque and exercise the fundamental American right of freedom of worship.”
“Federal law requires towns to treat religious land use applications like any other land use application,” said Acting U.S. Attorney William E. Fitzpatrick of the District of New Jersey. “Bernards Township made decisions that treated the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge differently than other houses of worship. The settlement announced today corrects those decisions and ensures that members of this religious community have the same ability to practice their faith as all other religions.”
RLUIPA prohibits discrimination in land use and zoning decisions. Persons who believe they have been subjected to discrimination in land use or zoning decisions may contact the U.S. Attorney’s Office Civil Rights Hotline at (855) 281-3339 or the Civil Rights Division Housing and Civil Enforcement Section at (800) 896-7743.