Freedom of Religion Wins Out in Bernards Township

Even in this age of political correctness, religious bigotry continues to thrive in the streets and especially in social media.

For the most part, here in the United States, where hate crimes are recognized and discrimination is against the law, the authors of the scrawls of hate remain anonymous. They rightfully fear legal prosecution and public opprobrium.

But it would be a mistake to assume that all such haters are semi-literates, occupants of the lowest rungs of society.

There are, unfortunately, an ample number of well-educated people, including public officials, who are as bigoted as the local skinhead. But rather than hide behind an anonymous graffito or online posting, they hide behind laws and regulations, posing as guardians of sacred municipal zoning laws, upholders of venerated building codes and counters of parking spaces. They search for the fine print to stymie the rights of racial, religious and ethnic groups they dislike; and if the fine print doesn’t seem to favor their objectives, they construe it in such a way as to do so.

Such appears to have been the case of Bernards Township, New Jersey, where a federal judge has just ruled that the local planning board has been in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act (RLUIPA) by applying a different standard to Muslims than to other groups.

For three years, and throughout 39 public hearings, the local planning board has denied Islamic Society the permit to build a mosque.

Bernards Mayor Carol Bianchi and her colleagues absolutely reject the charge that the unbending refusal had anything to do with anti-Muslim prejudice, insisting instead that the requirements they imposed on the Islamic Society were “completely appropriate.”

What were those requirements? The central issue centered on the number of parking spaces the mosque would have to provide. The town insisted it had to have more off-street parking than a comparably-sized church or synagogue because of its unique worship times and traditions. Fridays, after work, it said the congregants would all descend on the mosque, disrupting the flow of traffic.

U.S. District Judge Michael Shipp was not taken in by such claims. In his ruling, he noted that the township had not conducted comparable assessments in the case of other houses of worship that applied for permits. By its own admission, the town applied a different standard to Muslims, he wrote. Shipp concluded that the seemingly benign concern with parking spaces was merely a cover-up for “unbridled and unconstitutional” treatment of the Islamic Society.

As Mohammad Ali Chaudry, the society’s president, bluntly put it, “No other house of worship in the township’s history had ever been treated the way we were.”

Parking wasn’t the only issue. Board officials and residents scrutinized every aspect of the application, and cited, among other things, storm water management and pedestrian safety in the parking lot, as reasons for rejecting it.

That is the legal story. But members of the Islamic Society have also told of a hate campaign mounted against them. “The mosque proposal met with vociferous public opposition,” the Justice Department wrote in its recent complaint. “Fliers, social media and websites denounced the mosque and were filled with anti-Muslim bigotry and references to terrorism and the 9/11 attacks.”

The planning boards are only the official side of the anti-Muslim feeling that seeks the same things in a more respectable way, under the cover of the responsible administration of the law.

The Bernards Township case is of great interest to all who have reason to worry about religious liberties. The Religious Land Use Act, passed by Congress in 2000, recognized that minority religious groups of all kinds are vulnerable to discriminatory treatment and need protection.

While it is true that 11 of the last 13 cases related to the law brought by the Justice Department have involved Muslims, Orthodox Jews have also suffered from the perversion of land-use regulations.

In August 2016, a federal court upheld the complaint of Yeshiva Naos Yaakov against Ocean Township, N.J., that the township had discriminated against the yeshivah. There, too, U.S. District Judge Freda Wolfson rejected the claim of the township that it was merely administering “neutral ordinances.”

As we wrote at the time: “Despite the township’s careful avoidance of any anti-Semitic comment in its official statements, the local clamor against the yeshivah and the Lakewood Orthodox community in general belied its sanctimonious claims of pure zoning considerations. The blatant anti-Semitic remarks cited by the yeshivah’s attorney in court, as well as such tactics as packing hearings and imposing unconscionable delays, spoke for themselves.”

We welcome the court’s ruling in the Bernards Township case, as well. It takes the side of freedom of religion, from which we all benefit, against the discrimination practiced by the self-righteous bigots that unfortunately run some of our localities.