An editorial in today’s New York Times calls on a New Jersey town to stop blocking a Muslim community group’s attempt to build a mosque. In April, the Brennan Center, with its pro bono partner Arnold & Porter, brought suit against the town of Bridgewater, seeking to compel the town to allow the Al Falah Center to move forward with its proposal.
There have been a slew of local controversies in the past decade over the proposed construction of mosques and Islamic community centers. Mayor Michael Bloomberg rightly stood up for religious liberty against vitriolic opposition to the construction of an Islamic center in Lower Manhattan. With the mayor’s support, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission unanimously allowed the project to proceed and it is, slowly.
Such good sense is not as common as it should be. This spring, officials in Bridgewater, N.J., opposed a plan to turn an old inn, formerly used for weddings and political events, into the town’s only mosque. Rather than stand up to the opposition, stirred up partly by the Tea Party, the mayor, the township council and the planning board raced to change the zoning rules so that a house of worship would no longer be a permitted use on the inn’s property.
The application for the mosque was filed in January. Ignoring established procedures, officials rushed the zoning change so it would be completed before May 5, the effective date of a new state statute on development regulations that would have allowed the mosque to proceed under the old zoning law.
In defending its move, the township prepared a “reexamination report” that raised hazy new traffic concerns even though an earlier report found no such issues, and both the town’s traffic expert and the county’s planning board found that the mosque would have only a minimal effect on traffic. The debate has centered mostly on safety and quality-of-life objections. Mosques, like other religious institutions, are not exempt from such considerations, but objections must be backed up by studies or other hard data (missing here) and may not be used as a pretext to discriminate against a religion seeking to build a house of worship.
In June, a federal trial judge properly allowed a lawsuit challenging the town’s actions on constitutional and statutory grounds to go forward. Meanwhile, the Justice Department is conducting an investigation into whether the town’s actions violated the 2000 federal law that bars use of zoning restrictions to unreasonably limit religious structures, a possible prelude to the government’s entry into the case. Over the past month, the department has secured settlements in similar zoning disputes in Georgia and Virginia, allowing proposed mosques to proceed.
Instead of trying to justify its curious skewing of the zoning rules, Bridgewater should be seeking a resolution that permits the mosque to be built and removes a self-inflicted injury to the community’s reputation.