In 2011, the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge purchased 4.3 acres of property on Church Street. The intent was to build a mosque that would accommodate parts of the Muslim population in Somerset County, New Jersey, which nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010.
What they had hoped would be a simple procedure became an ongoing five-year, expensive process that included 39 public hearings as well as incessant opposition from both the Planning Board and members of the township of Bernards.
The Islamic Society of Basking Ridge is led by Mohammad Ali Chaudry, a member of the town for decades who even served as mayor.
Not only had the society met all requirements by the local zoning board, but the architect of the mosque even designed the structure differently from normal, allowing it to blend in with the residential surroundings and not attract attention.
Traditionally, mosques have a large dome on top of them, which was not to be included in this case, and the minarets alongside of the building also would have been altered to resemble chimneys. Architect Daniel Lincoln did not return calls for comment.
Image of proposed mosque
Despite the numerous instances of compliance and compromise, the mosque continued to face resistance. In March of this year, the society filed a lawsuit accusing the planning board for violating a law that protects religious groups from discrimination, specifically in cases where a government attempts to prevent them from expressing their religious freedom by citing a land use regulation — which is exactly what the Township of Bernards did. The law was passed unanimously by Congress in 2000.
“The basis of the legal challenge under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), is that the township has violated the non-discrimination provision of the RLUIPA, the federal civil rights statute, and the non-discrimination provision says that a planning board may not treat one house of worship differently than another house of worship,” Becket Fund Attorney Hannah Smith told Bold.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, along with numerous religious organizations, have filed an Amici Curiae, or an amicus brief, in support of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge.
The town requires a ratio of three persons per parking spot, and the mosque was set to fit 150 people, so they created a plan for a parking lot that met the prerequisites by providing 50 spaces, and the board had originally agreed to this.
However, there was an immense amount of outside pressure from some town members, as well as Bernards Township Citizens for Responsible Development, an organization dedicated to “responsible growth and the preservation of the rural and bucolic nature of our community.”
The group was created in 2012, amid the dispute. Sources for the organization’s funding are not made public, and they have never opposed the building of other structures. Both Robert F. Simon, their defense attorney, and the organization themselves, did not return requests for comment.
That same group presented an engineer to the planning board who stated the mosque needed a parking lot that would fit 107 cars. No other structure has ever been told to follow that regulation, including the church that is on the same street as the proposed mosque would be. The board went ahead and accepted the proposal anyway. Jonathan Drill, defense attorney for the planning board, was not available to comment.
Although there has been no evidence of outright discrimination toward the religion of Islam or Muslims at any of the public hearings, there have been some instances elsewhere that show a likely underlying truth behind the motives of the opposition.
The 117-page suit filed by the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge cites multiple cases where they have been subject to discrimination. For example, the society has its acronym “ISBR” along the side of their mailbox. It was vandalized to then read “ISIS,” referring to the global terrorist organization.
Town member Lori Caratzola, despite living a little more than two miles from the building site, attended each of the 39 public hearings and has also been a prominent force in the resistance to the mosque. The lawsuit states Caratzola made unusual claims to the Board such as “100 billion animals are sacrificed in the name of Islam in the United States every year.”
She was also engaged on a website titled barenakedislam.com under the name “LC” (her initials), and even identified herself. Here she can be seen making comments on the site such as “I admire your work.” The website made a post copying an article about ISBR’s mosque project but included its own commentary saying “Nobody wants to live near potential terrorists.”
After further digging, Bold was able to find comments Caratzola left on a picture of one of her Facebook friends.
“Don’t they care that this is a victory mosque?” she wrote.
This is a woman who has been noted as having an enormous influence on the Planning Board. There is a variety of other instances of religious discrimination toward the ISBR from different people who are accurately cited in the lawsuit.
On the surface, the building of this mosque, like any other structure in a residential area, is bound to have some legitimate concerns. However, all of these potential “problems” are presumably masked by ulterior motives that stem from ignorance and misunderstanding.
While the application for building the mosque was pending, Township Committee members put forth an amendment to the Township’s zoning ordinance that has never been attempted, discussed, or even debated on a single other building in the town. The ordinance has made it nearly impossible for a mosque to be built anywhere in the Township of Bernards, let alone the original plot of land that specifically permitted houses of worship.
The culture of the United States since 9/11 has been drastically different from that of prior years. One of the defining changes has been a rising fear of the religion of Islam. Unfortunately, this lawsuit is a gross reflection of an irrational fear of an entire religion that not only exists, but continues to grow throughout the United States.
Mosques almost routinely face resistance wherever they are proposed. The country need not paint with a broad brush or it will continue to create a divide and a nationwide norm of acceptance for wrongful discrimination and violation of the very first amendment that was written in the Constitution.
Charlie May recently graduated from the Ramapo College of New Jersey, receiving a Bachelor's Degree in Journalism. His main focus is politics, national security, foreign affairs, money in politics, and investigative pieces. He hopes to bring a fresh, unique perspective to Bold.