Skip Navigation
Court Case Tracker

Al Falah Center v. Township of Bridgewater

The Al Falah Center brought suit against the Township of Bridgewater, N.J. to compel the township to allow Al Falah to move forward with plans to renovate an existing building for use as a mosque and Islamic community center.

Published: January 9, 2014

Updated Janu­ary 28, 2015

On April 26, 2011, the Al Falah Center brought suit against the Town­ship of Bridge­wa­ter, N.J. to compel the town­ship to allow Al Falah to move forward with plans to renov­ate an exist­ing build­ing for use as a mosque and Islamic community center. 

After years of search­ing for a site on which to estab­lish a house of worship, day care, reli­gious school and community center for the area, members of the Al Falah board iden­ti­fied a former banquet hall as an ideal loca­tion and worked with town­ship offi­cials to develop a suit­able plan for renov­a­tion. After members of the local community voiced strident oppos­i­tion to the project, the Town­ship Coun­cil rushed through changes to the town­ship’s zoning laws, trans­form­ing Al Falah’s proposed site into one on which houses of worship are not a permit­ted use. Though the Town­ship cites concerns over traffic, docu­ment­a­tion shows that Al Falah’s proposed plan will not adversely affect local traffic. On June 29, in an oral hear­ing, the judge denied the defend­ants’ motion to dismiss, ruling that Al Falah could proceed with its case. The New York Times wrote an edit­or­ial on the court’s decision.

The complaint, filed in federal district court in New Jersey, alleges that the new zoning ordin­ance discrim­in­ates against the area’s Muslim community and viol­ates their federal consti­tu­tional rights under the First Amend­ment and the Equal Protec­tion Clause of the Four­teenth Amend­ment. A number of federal and state stat­utory claims are also alleged in the complaint, includ­ing multiple viol­a­tions of New Jersey muni­cipal land use laws and the Reli­gious Land Use and Insti­tu­tion­al­ized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA). 

After the litig­a­tion proceeded for another year, the parties filed follow-up briefs in Octo­ber of 2012. In those briefs (avail­able below), Al Falah reit­er­ated its request that the judge inval­id­ate the zoning ordin­ance and require the Town­ship to allow the applic­a­tion to proceed, and the Town­ship asked the judge to dismiss Al Falah’s claims in their entirety (known as a “motion for summary judg­ment”). The court held oral argu­ments in Novem­ber 2012, and on Septem­ber 30, 2013, Judge Shipp issued an opin­ion grant­ing Al Falah’s motion for a prelim­in­ary injunc­tion and deny­ing the Town­ship’s motion for summary judg­ment in nearly every respect.

In his opin­ion, Judge Shipp observed that there was substan­tial circum­stan­tial evid­ence of discrim­in­a­tion against the mosque, based on factors includ­ing the disputed concerns about traffic, the voci­fer­ous public objec­tions to the mosque, and the speed with which the new zoning ordin­ance was pushed through. On the motion for summary judg­ment, constru­ing the facts in Al Falah’s favor (as he was required to do), Judge Shipp there­fore ruled that he could not conclude that the mosque had not been discrim­in­ated against, that the ordin­ance had not imposed a substan­tial burden on Al Falah’s reli­gious prac­tice, that the Town­ship had not acted irra­tion­ally in passing the ordin­ance, or that suit­able altern­at­ive loca­tions for the mosque were defin­itely avail­able.

He then turned to the motion for a prelim­in­ary injunc­tion. That motion required that Al Falah show, among other things, an “irre­par­able injury” and a “like­li­hood of success on the merits.” Al Falah had argued that because it had no perman­ent home, it had had to forego import­ant reli­gious programs, could not expand its congreg­a­tion, and was unable to attract a perman­ent spir­itual leader. Al Falah argued that these harms imposed an “irre­par­able injury” by viol­at­ing its First Amend­ment rights to free exer­cise of reli­gion, and the judge agreed. The judge next concluded that because the plaintiffs had shown that no altern­at­ive sites were avail­able and that its rented facil­it­ies were inad­equate, Al Falah also had a substan­tial like­li­hood of success on the merits (that is, once all the facts were actu­ally invest­ig­ated and weighed by a judge or jury). The judge also noted that because of the way the ordin­ance was passed, the Town­ship was very unlikely to be able to show that the law furthered an import­ant govern­mental interest or that it was the least restrict­ive way of achiev­ing the Town­ship’s ostens­ible goal of redu­cing traffic. Finally, the judge found that Al Falah contin­ued to be harmed by the effect of the ordin­ance, that the Town­ship was not likely to be harmed if the plaintiffs’ zoning applic­a­tion proceeded, and that there was a strong public interest in grant­ing the injunc­tion because it fell squarely within the expressed purpose of RLUIPA.

Accord­ingly, Judge Shipp ordered the Town­ship not to enforce the chal­lenged zoning law against Al Falah and to resume consid­er­a­tion of the original site plan applic­a­tion for the mosque. The plaintiffs are there­fore entitled to move forward with their plans without being subjec­ted to the addi­tional burdens of the ordin­ance or having to look for an altern­ate loca­tion. This outcome repres­ents a major victory for the plaintiffs, who will finally be able to pursue a perman­ent home for their spir­itual community and to fully exer­cise their faith as guar­an­teed by the Consti­tu­tion and federal law.

The follow­ing month, in Octo­ber 2013, the Town­ship filed a motion asking Judge Shipp to stay his ruling while the Town­ship appeals to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. In Novem­ber, Al Falah filed a motion object­ing to the request, arguing that the Town­ship would suffer little harm if the congreg­a­tion were allowed to move forward with its plans, and that the public interest favored Al Falah’s proceed­ing. In Janu­ary 2014, Judge Shipp issued a ruling agree­ing with Al Falah and find­ing that the Town­ship was essen­tially trying to relit­ig­ate the case through the stay request. On Janu­ary 21, 2014, the Town­ship filed a brief in support of their appeal to the Third Circuit, arguing against Al Falah and Judge Ship­p’s Septem­ber injunc­tion. On Janu­ary 23rd, the Court of Appeals denied the Town­ship’s motion for a stay, mean­ing that the Town­ship must continue to hear Al Falah’s applic­a­tion while the appeal proceeds. On Febru­ary 20, Al Falah filed its response to the Town­ship’s appeal. In addi­tion, the follow­ing week, a coali­tion of reli­gious groups filed an amicus (friend of the court) brief in support of Al Falah, detail­ing the rise in anti-Muslim discrim­in­a­tion, partic­u­larly in the years since 9/11.

On Decem­ber 2, 2014, Al Falah announced it had reached a settle­ment with Bridge­wa­ter Town­ship which allows Al Falah to proceed with its plans to build a mosque and community center. The settle­ment includes a $5 million payment from the Town­ship’s insur­ance carrier for alleged damages, costs and attor­ney fees in exchange for Al Falah’s drop­ping the lawsuit. This settle­ment repres­ents a signi­fic­ant step forward, and the end of a 3-year dispute. 


Key Events

  • In Janu­ary of 2011, the Al Falah center met with the plan­ning board and town offi­cials to discuss the proposed plan. Traffic was not flagged as an issue.
  • On Janu­ary 24, a public hear­ing about Al Falah’s site plan applic­a­tion was held. Due to record high attend­ance neces­sit­at­ing a larger venue, the hear­ing was adjourned until Febru­ary 28th. At the end of this abor­ted meet­ing, the Plan­ning Board instruc­ted the town­ship plan­ner to draft a “re-exam­in­a­tion report” focus­ing on houses of worship, citing the public’s concerns over traffic.
  • On Febru­ary 8, the plan­ning board adop­ted the re-exam­in­a­tion report, which proposed changes that would require houses of worship, schools, and similar build­ings to have access from specific roads, county road­ways, or state high­ways. Al Falah’s proposed site is not on an approved road.
  • On Febru­ary 17, the Town­ship Coun­cil approved a resol­u­tion to begin the process of amend­ing the ordin­ance.
  • On Febru­ary 28, the post­poned public hear­ing was held, but final approval of Al Falah’s applic­a­tion was again delayed due to time constraints and the over­whelm­ing number of public comments and ques­tions for Al Falah’s witnesses. A continu­ation of this hear­ing was sched­uled for March 28.
  • On March 14, the Town­ship Coun­cil adop­ted the ordin­ance in a public hear­ing remov­ing Al Falah’s land from the Town­ship’s list of sites zoned for houses of worship. The accel­er­ated pace of adopt­ing the new ordin­ance allowed the Town­ship to avoid the effects of  a New Jersey stat­ute to take effect on May 5 that would require applic­a­tions to be considered based on the ordin­ances in place at the time they were filed.
  • On April 26, the Al Falah center brought suit in federal district court in New Jersey alleging burdens on the free exer­cise of reli­gion, discrim­in­a­tion and viol­a­tions of state and federal stat­utes.
  • In May and June, Al Falah and the defend­ants filed briefs with the court; Al Falah asked the court to issue a prelim­in­ary injunc­tion declar­ing the offend­ing ordin­ance void, prohib­it­ing the Town­ship from enfor­cing it, and direct­ing the Town­ship to recon­sider its applic­a­tion, and the Town­ship sought to dismiss Al Falah’s suit on the grounds that the plaintiffs were required to exhaust addi­tional admin­is­trat­ive aspects of the zoning and land use process.  
  • On June 29, in an oral hear­ing, the judge denied the Town­ship’s motion to dismiss the litig­a­tion, conclud­ing that the litig­a­tion was ripe and could move forward. The tran­script of that hear­ing is avail­able here
  • After extens­ive discov­ery and vari­ous litig­a­tion-related delays, on Octo­ber 12, 2012, Al Falah filed a supple­mental memor­andum in support of its motion for a prelim­in­ary injunc­tion. In this motion, Al Falah again asked the judge to declare the ordin­ance void imme­di­ately and to direct the Town­ship to consider Al Falah’s applic­a­tion for its chosen prop­erty without reli­ance on the ordin­ance.  
  • On the same day, the Town­ship filed a motion for summary judg­ment asking the judge to dismiss Al Falah’s complaint in its entirety. On Octo­ber 22, 2012, Al Falah filed a memor­andum oppos­ing the Town­ship’s request for summary judge­ment on the grounds that Al Falah’s claims of the Town­ship’s discrim­in­at­ory intent and viol­a­tions of RLUIPA were still legit­im­ate. 
  • On Octo­ber 29, 2012, Al Falah filed its reply memor­andum in support of its motion for a prelim­in­ary injunc­tion, reit­er­at­ing its argu­ments in favor of a prelim­in­ary injunc­tion. 
  • On Novem­ber 13, the court held oral argu­ment on Al Falah’s motion for a prelim­in­ary injunc­tion. 
  • On Septem­ber 30, 2013, the judge issued a decision and an order grant­ing Al Falah’s motion for a prelim­in­ary injunc­tion and deny­ing almost every aspect of the Town­ship’s motion for summary judg­ment. 
  • On Octo­ber 28, 2013, the Town­ship asked Judge Shipp to stay his order while the Town­ship appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. On Novem­ber 18, Al Falah filed a motion oppos­ing the request. On Janu­ary 6, 2014, Judge Shipp issued a ruling deny­ing the Town­ship’s request, mean­ing that the Town­ship must allow Al Falah’s applic­a­tion to proceed without addi­tional delay. 
  • On Janu­ary 21, 2014, the Town­ship filed a brief in support of their appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, arguing that Al Falah’s claims should be dismissed and that Judge Ship­p’s Septem­ber 2013 prelim­in­ary injunc­tion was an abuse of discre­tion.
  • On Janu­ary 23, 2014, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit denied the Town­ship’s motion for a stay, mean­ing that the Town­ship must continue to hear Al Falah’s applic­a­tion while the appeal proceeds.
  • On Febru­ary 20, Al Falah filed its response to the Town­ship’s appeal.
  • On Febru­ary 27, 2014, a coali­tion of reli­gious groups filed an amicus (friend of the court) brief in support of Al Falah, detail­ing the rise in anti-Muslim discrim­in­a­tion, partic­u­larly in the years since 9/11.
  • On Decem­ber 2, 2014, Al Fala Center reached a settle­ment with Bridge­wa­ter Town­ship. This settle­ment included a $5 million payment to Al Falah for alleged damages and attor­ney fees, and allows Al Falah to move forward with its plans to build a mosque and community center.

Coun­sel

Al Falah is repres­en­ted by Archer & Greiner, the Asian Amer­ican Legal Defense and Educa­tion Fund, the Bren­nan Center for Justice, and its pro bono part­ner Arnold & Porter, LLP, which is lead coun­sel. 


Other Case Docu­ments

Initial Complaint (04/26/11)

Motion for Prelim­in­ary Injunc­tion (05/18/11)

Defend­ant’s Motion to Dismiss (06/03/11)

For further inform­a­tion about the Liberty and National Secur­ity program, please visit the program’s section of our site.