NJ town rocked by charges of bigotry after rejection of mosque
A New Jersey suburb known for its tree-lined streets and stately, multimillion-dollar homes has been transformed into a battleground over both a proposed mosque and the free speech rights of residents who oppose the project.
Bernards, a township of about 27,000 an hour west of New York City, has been cleaved by controversy since 2011, when its Planning Board took up a proposal for a 4,250-square-foot mosque in a residential neighborhood known as Liberty Corner. The applicant, Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, is led by a former Bernards mayor and has filed a federal civil rights suit accusing members of the board of religious discrimination in ultimately rejecting the project.
Some 33 residents who spoke out against the project at dozens of public meetings have been subpoenaed in an effort by the plaintiffs to prove bigotry drove the decision.
“This is a land use matter. It never was about religion,” current Bernards Mayor Carol Bianchi told FoxNews.com. “Anyone who takes the time to review the transcripts or knows our Planning Board members would draw this conclusion quickly.”
The Planning Board and many residents say they were concerned about traffic and other zoning issues, but the lawsuit accuses town officials of violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which gives religious institutions flexibility when it comes to zoning law restrictions on property use. The U.S. Department of Justice is separatley investigating the case.
The Islamic group has won the support of several civil and religious liberty advocates, including the ACLU, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and Muslim Advocates, a San Francisco-based legal and educational advocacy group.
“I came to America almost 50 years ago with a firm belief in the values that America represents, including freedom of religion before the law,” Mohammad Ali Chaudry told The Bernardsville News after the Becket Fund filed a brief in support of his group. “The mosque is part of my American Dream.”
Lawyers for the Muslim organization want to interview residents who spoke out against the mosque, and to review their email messages, social media posts and any other evidence they say may prove they were motivated by bias.
The seeds of the controversy were planted in November of 2011, when the ISBR purchased nearly 4 acres in the quiet neighborhood and then applied five months later to build the mosque, complete with a prayer hall and, ultimately, 107 parking spaces. The proposed mosque was denied by the Planning Board last December following numerous public hearings over the course of more than three years. SOURCE
Chaudry, (l.) on the left (former Mayor and Muslim bringing the lawsuit), and Bianchi, (r.) sexi republican broad on the right is the current mayor and defender of Bernards
Bernards Township officials blast mosque suit, federal probe
BERNARDS TWP. – After staying largely silent about a civil lawsuit and a related federal probe into allegations that anti-Muslim bias drove the denial of plans to build a mosque in Liberty Corner, township officials have come out swinging.
In an exclusive interview with this newspaper, the officials challenged the legitimacy of the probe, citing a potential conflict of interest involving the lead investigator and a “rush to judgment.”
With respect to the civil suit, filed by the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge (ISBR) and ISBR President Ali Chaudry, a former township mayor, they said the ISBR is threatening to hold the township liable for “exorbitant” legal fees and has subpoenaed residents who opposed the mosque as a means to silence them and saddle them with legal costs.
“It is very disappointing to me that the former mayor of this town, who we trusted, is working to use these tactics and instill fear and intimidation in this community to get the results that he wants,” said Mayor Carol Bianchi.
Committeeman John Carpenter said Chaudry resorted to a discrimination claim to bypass the land use process after “an inadequate and uncooperative presentation to the Planning Board.”
Chaudry “is trying to extract millions of dollars from the people of the town he once led, and it’s appalling,” Carpenter said.
Bianchi, Carpenter and Township Attorney John Belardo were jointly interviewed at Belardo’s law office in Harding Township on Monday, July 18, with Carpenter participating by speakerphone.
An email message from this newspaper seeking a response from the ISBR’s legal representative, Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler, LLP, of New York, was not returned. A phone message left for Chaudry was also not returned.
The proposed mosque was denied by the Planning Board on Dec. 8 after 38 hearings spanning more than three years. The ISBR sought to raze a house on 4.3 acres at 124 Church St. and build a 4,250-square-foot mosque for up to 142 worshippers. There were to be 107 parking stalls.
With the site located between two homes, and the mosque to have five daily prayers and a Sunday school, residents voiced concerns about the affect on the neighborhood.
The ISBR and Chaudry challenged the board’s denial in a lawsuit filed in federal court on March 10. The suit claimed the denial resulted from anti-Islamic attitudes in the community, and violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) of 2000.
Within a week after the ISBR suit was filed, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey confirmed that it had launched an investigation into whether the township violated RLUIPA.
The suit has resulted in extensive negative publicity for the township.
Conflict Of Interest?
In the July 19 interview, township officials said they discovered a potential conflict of interest in the probe. They said Caroline Sadlowski, chief of the Civil Division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey, serves with Chaudry on Drew University’s 14-member Center for Religion and Cultural Conflicts (CRCC).
“She’s the lead investigator” in the probe, said Bianchi. “The lead investigator.”
Belardo said township officials were unaware of the link between Sadlowski and Chaudry until it came up in an Internet search. “It was never disclosed to us by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”
The township raised the issue with the U.S Attorney’s Office and specifically asked whether Sadlowski’s service with Chaudry was a conflict of interest, Belardo said.
The response, signed by Michael E. Campion, chief of the Civil Rights Unit and dated July 8, said Sadlowksi has served on Drew’s CRCC “for a little over a year in her personal capacity, not her official capacity” and provides no legal representation.
In “an abundance of caution, she raised the question with her supervisors in our office,” he added. The supervisors concluded that her membership on the board with Chaudry “does not create a conflict or an appearance of a conflict of interest with regard to this investigation.”
Campion wrote that after the question was again raised by the township on June 30, it was brought to officials at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., and they, too, found no conflict or appearance of conflict.
Belardo said township officials “have not yet reached that conclusion because we are not in receipt of the facts on their relationship.
“Were there communications between Ms. Sadlowski and Dr. Chaudry during the hearings?” he asked.
He said township officials learned that when attorney Robert Raymar represented the ISBR before the Planning Board, Justice Department officials “were periodically checking in with him” to see how the process was going.
Said Carpenter, “Clearly, the Department of Justice had been watching for a long time.”
Belardo noted that the federal probe was launched only three days after the filing of the ISBR suit, which he called “an incredibly short amount of time for an investigation to follow a complaint.”
Carpenter agreed. “There seems to be a rush to judgment,” he said. “There seems to be a presumption of wrongdoing, and now it’s up to the town to prove otherwise.”
Belardo contrasted the probe with a four-year-old Justice Department investigation into the denial of a synagogue in Millburn. He said federal investigators have yet to interview any Millburn officials, but have already questioned three officials here with plans to see two more.
Bianchi said the probe has also required the township to turn over 215,000 pages of documents, requiring 350 hours of staff time. “Compliance has been a costly and time-consuming effort.”
A phone message left by this newspaper for Sadlowski drew an email response from Matthew Reilly, public affairs officer for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, District of New Jersey. He said his office “vetted” Sadlowski’s service on Drew’s CRCC prior to the probe and found no conflict of interest, “nor any ethical or professional basis to preclude her from working on the matter.”
Reilly said that in response to the concerns raised by the township, the matter was further reviewed by officials at the U.S. Department of Justice, “who reached the same conclusion.”
Typically, when a land use application is denied by the local planning or zoning boards, a legal challenge would be filed with the state Superior Court in Somerville, where a judge would review the site plan issues. Township officials were critical of the ISBR for instead suing in federal court and claiming discrimination under RLUIPA.
“We feel it was a land use decision and has nothing to do with religion,” said Bianchi. “There was no discrimination.”
She noted that Chaudry was elected to the Township Committee after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the ISBR held services as well as events in town-owned facilities.
“I don’t understand how Mr. Chaudry and his attorneys can call this community discriminatory when this community has always embraced Mr. Chaudry and his congregation,” Bianchi said.
“It would have been inappropriate and discriminatory,” she added, “if the Planning Board had granted preferential treatment because of his status as a former mayor of the town.”
Although township zoning deemed houses of worship a permitted use in residential zones at the time the ISBR proposal was filed, Belardo said the board denied the site plan based on inadequate plans for buffering, storm water management, internal traffic circulation and fire safety.
He said the ISBR never provided the board with a compliant plan to recharge water that would be displaced, and that alone was grounds for denial.
“While the ISBR is entitled to a fair hearing, they’re not entitled to preference based upon religion,” he said.
Bianchi said that had the ISBR filed a land use lawsuit in Superior Court, “the Planning Board would have prevailed.”
A key decision in the land use review occurred in 2013 when the board, citing professional planning standards for mosques, increased the required number of parking spaces from about 50 to 107.
Carpenter said at that point, the ISBR switched legal counsel, going to from Vincent Bisogno, who is a land use attorney, to Raymar.
“He’s a litigator,” he said of Raymar. “So clearly, (Chaudry) decided at some point … he would turn this into a confrontational endeavor.”
In claiming a violation of RLUIPA, the ISBR suit is using “a powerful tool,” Carpenter said. In May, the ISBR suit drew legal support from two national advocacy groups representing 34 religious and civil rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
But Carpenter spoke dismissively of the groups’ involvement, saying “they know nothing about the town or the people of the town.”
Bianchi said “it appears former Mayor Chaudry and his attorneys are using their contacts within the federal government and civil rights groups … to pressure the township to settle in this matter without regard to legitimate land use concerns.”
Carpenter said that in the meantime, the ISBR is engaging “a team of six to seven Wall Street attorneys who have been working on a case that would make your head spin.”
Belardo said the ISBR had five lawyers at a recent case management conference. He said the ISBR made of a point of informing Howard Mankoff, the attorney for the township’s insurer, that its legal fees had reached $1.5 million through the end of June and that the total “will go up by hundreds of thousands of dollars each month.”
Bianchi said it “appears Mr. Chaudry and his attorneys expect the taxpayers of Bernards Township to pay these exorbitant legal fees” if they win the case.
As for the township’s legal fees, Belado said they “don’t even remotely” approach those claimed by the plaintiff.
According to officials, the legal fees to defend against the ISBR suit included $74,000 for Mankoff’s firm through July 21, and $22,700 for Belardo’s firm through July 22. Mankoff’s fees are being paid by the township’s insurer, QBE Specialty Insurance of New York.
Another cost borne by the township are legal fees from hiring two lawyers to ensure QBE provides the required liability coverage. They were hired in May for an initial fee not to exceed $17,500, but the committee planned on Tuesday, July 26, to raise that ceiling to $55,000.
The township has agreed to pay an additional fee of up to $20,000 to an audio recording firm to transcribe recordings from the Planning Board hearings on the ISBR proposal. Bianchi said the cost will be covered by QBE.
Township officials were also critical of the ISBR’s decision to issue subpoenas seeking the email addresses and social media accounts of dozens of residents who voiced concerns about the proposed mosque at Planning Board hearings.
Several of those residents have criticized the subpoenas, saying their comments were limited to land use issues like traffic and lighting. But the ISBR suit maintains that objectors were “coached” not to raise religious issues.
One resident filed a motion to quash the subpoenas, leading a judge to temporarily suspend compliance.
“Ali has subpoenaed private residents who exercised their right to be heard at a public hearing,” said Carpenter. “It’s an anti-free speech campaign he’s waging that’s appalling. They have to hire attorneys to defend their privacy.
“Who’s going to come out” and speak at a Planning Board hearing “and risk being subpoenaed by a disgruntled applicant?” he asked. “How is that helping our democracy?”
Bianchi said she was concerned that the subpoenas would have “a chilling effect on the future participation of residents at land use board hearings.” She said residents were personally served with papers at home, often with their families present. SOURCE