An Islamic group sued Bridgewater, N.J., for religious discrimination after the town changed zoning rules to block a mosque from opening in a residential neighborhood.
The Al Falah Center wanted to convert a former banquet hall located on a quiet side street into a mosque, day-care facility and community center for a diverse group of Muslim Americans who have been trying to find a home for the center more than a decade, according to the lawsuit filed on Tuesday in federal court in New Jersey.
But when the plans were making their way through the municipal channels, hundreds turned up to oppose the mosque. Though residents said their concerns were about traffic and other mundane quality-of-life issues, some people questioned where the group’s funding was coming from, and whether it had ties to terrorist organizations.
On March 14, the town agreed to limit houses of worship to certain main roads and other selected roads, including all areas where current churches and temples—including for Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Sikh and Jewish congregations—were already located. Al Falah said the town deliberately jimmied with the process, pushing their planning-board application hearing until after the town changed the law, to block the mosque.
“This conduct is discriminatory and imposes a substantial burden on plaintiffs’ right to the free exercise of their religion in violation of federal and state constitutional and statutory requirements,” the lawsuit said.
An attorney for the town, Bill Savo, said he hadn’t yet seen the complaint. “The town always has a history of acting in good faith,” he said. “We believe we acted appropriately.”
The flare-up over the Bridgewater mosque came in the wake of other efforts around the country to block or close mosques, including the so-called Ground Zero mosque in New York.
But the underlying tone of the debate was different in Bridgewater. Residents said they were supportive of mosques in the town—just not on Mountain Top Road, a small, winding street, without sidewalks, where some of the many trees come practically up to the asphalt.
“We have every religion in Bridgewater you can think of, many religions represented,” Mr. Savo said. “It’s just a concern about traffic-safety issues.”
Attorneys from the Brennan Center at New York University and the Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund are among those representing Al Falah. Representatives from the Brennan Center said members of Al Falah declined to be interviewed about the issue.