By Ed Diokno
The Department of Justice filed a lawsuit this week against Bernards Township, New Jersey, alleging that the township violated a federal act which protects religious groups from discrimination in zoning and other land use laws.
The Department charged 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 on land it owns.
In a statement, the township “maintains that the Planning Board denial was based on legitimate land use and safety concerns which plaintiffs refused, and to this day, refuse to address. To that point, the planning board presented plaintiffs an opportunity for reconsideration to address the land use issues early on, and plaintiffs have shown no interest in complying.”
It also charges the Department of Justice with a conflict of interest stating that the President of the Islamic Society sits on the same board as Caroline Sadlowski, chief of the Civil Division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey. Both sit on the the advisory board for Drew University’s Center for Religion, Culture and Conflicts.
The Department of Justice denies any conflict stating the two do not have a personal friendship and that Sadlowski received permission of her supervisor before proceeding on the case.
The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, alleges that Bernards Township’s denial of approval for the mosque discriminated against the Islamic Society based on its religion and the religion of its members; 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 complaint also alleges that the township violated RLUIPA by amending its zoning ordinance in a manner that imposes unreasonable limitations on all religious assemblies.
“Sixteen years ago, Congress passed RLUIPA unanimously – with diverse religious and ideological support – because it recognized the fundamental right of all religious communities to build places of worship free from discrimination,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
“No congregation or community should ever face unlawful barriers to practicing their religion and observing their faith,” said Gupta.
“As alleged in the complaint, Bernards Township has treated the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge differently than other houses of worship,” said U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman of the District of New Jersey,” said Fishman.