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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)

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