By Briana Vannozzi
In 2011, members of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge bought a four-acre plot in Bernards Township with plans to raze the house and build a mosque. But those plans were derailed after nearly 40 public hearings and four years of denied permits.
“In this particular case we feel that it is a case of people objecting to the mosque being built strictly because of faith-based issues and grounds,” said Abdul Mubarak-Rowe, communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The proposal was met with strong opposition from neighbors who feared the 4,200 square foot facility — with five daily prayer services — would create traffic congestion and invade the privacy of two homes directly next door. The Islamic Society recently filed a lawsuit against the Township Committee and Planning Board for violating religious rights. In it, they cite hostile, anti-Islam remarks and websites made to fuel the opposition. The lawsuit claims the town changed land use and zoning ordinances throughout the process to block them.
“According to what I have read thus far, the community in Bernardsville have met those requirements, but they feel that every time they meet those requirements they change the goal post,” Mubarak-Rowe said.
But this section of Bernards Township, known as Liberty Corner, has a long history of restricting development of any type. A local realtor tells NJTV News private homes seeking building variances for, say, a deck or property expansion are almost always in for a long haul. Liberty Corner is a designated historic district. Similar proposals to build properties for the town’s Presbyterian and Baptist churches on nearby land were also struck down in the past.
“There have been cases where people have objected to mosques being built or any houses of worship being built because they feel that it changed the dynamic of the community where they live, and that’s a legitimate concern,” Mubarak-Rowe said.
Neighbors who were once vocal critics of this proposed mosque declined to go on camera. They said they’re keeping their heads down and their voices low out of fear that they’ll be named in a civil suit.
The Department of Justice confirming to NJTV News it has also opened a civil rights investigation into the decision.
Bernards Township Mayor Carol Bianchi declined an interview due to the pending litigation, but said, “The township will cooperate with the legal process. … This was a land use decision rendered by Planning Board members who are upstanding volunteers in our community. I trust that their decisions were based solely on land use considerations.”
The Islamic Society’s founder and former Mayor M. Ali Chaudry said in a statement, “My community needs a place to pray in our own town. We bent over backwards to try and satisfy every demand made of us, no matter how unreasonable.”
The lawsuit is seeking to overturn the denial of their property application. An issue that’s sure to keep this relatively unknown community anything but for some time to come.