New York City

Justice Department Probing NJ Town's Denial to Build Mosque

Federal officials are investigating whether a New Jersey town violated religious freedom laws when it denied a group's plan to build a mosque.

News of the Justice Department's investigation comes a week after the group sued the town in federal court, alleging religious infringement.

Bernards Township Mayor Carol Bianchi told The Associated Press that town officials will cooperate with federal authorities.

"I know our planning board members and they are honest and ethical," she said in an email. "I trust they made their decisions based solely on land use considerations."

Adeel Mangi, an attorney representing the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, declined comment on the investigation. Bernards is about 36 miles west of New York City.

The group's founder, Mohmmad Chaundry, is a longtime Bernards resident who once served on the town's school board.

The lawsuit alleges a delayed and drawn out process during which town residents made references to terrorism and questioned what children would learn in the mosque.

"What should have been a simple board approval for a permitted use devolved into a Kafkaesque process that spanned an unprecedented four years and included 39 public hearings," the suit said.

The planning board had expressed concerns, among other things, about storm water drainage and a buffer zone between the proposed mosque and a neighboring property.

The group is suing under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which is the same statute that spurred the Justice Department probe. The 2000 law protects religious organizations from being discriminated against through zoning laws.

A municipality that's sued under the law must prove that its zoning laws further some kind of compelling government interest.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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