While even National Public Radio continues to discuss whether New Jersey is more aptly described as the “Garden State” or the “Armpit of America,” New Jersey may soon have a new claim to fame as the “RLUIPA Showdown State.” In 2011, the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge purchased 4.3 acres of land in Bernardsville, New Jersey for $750,000 seeking to construct a mosque there. The Islamic Society hired a local architect and submitted an application with the Bernards Township Planning Board to construct a 4,252-square-foot mosque in a residential neighborhood.
Neighbors have organized to fiercely oppose the Islamic Center’s application and there lurks the threat of legal action under RLUIPA as the Planning Board mulls the application. Some neighbors opposed to the application have formed a group, the “Bernards Township Citizens for Responsible Development,” and expressed concern for, among other things, preserving the “quiet character of . . . residential neighborhoods and prevent[ing] the intrusion of intensive non-residential uses.” The group’s website expressly disavows religious or ethnic motivation: “We are strongly opposed to all forms of intolerance, bigotry, and prejudice and embrace the diversity of our Township’s population.” http://www.btcrd.org.
Although the group’s embrace of diversity and hard line against discrimination are commendable, it is also important to remember that a religious institution may prevail under RLUIPA even where it suffers no discrimination, but is substantially burdened by a municipal agency’s decision. Still, courts may look to evidence of discrimination when considering a RLUIPA substantial burden claim. Westchester Day School v. Village of Mamaroneck, 504 F.3d 338 (2d Cir. 2007).
We will keep a close watch of the Planning Board’s decision and any resulting legal action. Until then, you can read more about the case here.