The Township of Bridgewater, NJ recently settled a lawsuit filed by a local Muslim congregation – the Al Falah Center – for $7.75 million. The lawsuit alleged that the Township’s expeditious passage of a new land use ordinance which effectively barred the Center from converting a former 15,500 sq. foot banquet into a mosque violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”).
In October 2010, the Center signed a contract to purchase a former Red Roof Inn with the intent of converting it into a mosque. A prior Township traffic study concluded that the proposed conversion would not increase traffic. And in March 2011, the Summit County Planning Board found that the conversion raised minimal traffic issues and it conditioned approval of Al Falah’s land use application on installation of a new traffic light paid for by the Center.
But six days after the County issued its finding and shortly before a new state law favorable to the Center’s land use application went into effect, the Township adopted a new land use ordinance that effectively barred Al Falah from using the property for a mosque. Interestingly, the same ordinance did not affect the operation of the other seventeen existing houses of worship within the Township, none of which are mosques.
A federal district court found that the Township’s actions likely violated RLUIPA, as well as denied Bridgewater’s motion for summary judgment. The Township appealed this decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
The Interfaith Coalition on Mosques (“ICOM”), which is sponsored by ADL, filed a friend-of-the court (amicus) brief with the Third Circuit in support of the Center. However, the case settled during the pendency of the appeal.
Under the settlement terms, the Center will not build a mosque on the Red Roof Inn property. But the Township will pay $2.75 million to buy an alternative 15-acre property for the Center and Bridgewater’s insurance carrier will pay Al Falah another $5 million for alleged damages and attorney’s fees.
The legal settlement is not an admission of liability or discrimination. But perhaps it has taught the Township and others municipalities an expensive and vital lesson: religious freedom in America is for all faiths, not just some.