Al Falah Center (“Al Falah”) sought a permanent home for a mosque in the Town of Bridgewater, New Jersey (the “Town”). In the fall of 2010, Al Falah acquired title to property formerly used as a hotel on which it sought to construct a mosque (the “Property”). The Property was particularly attractive to Al Falah because it would not be required to obtain a variance under the then existing zoning regulations to operate a mosque thereon. Al Falah rented space that did not allow it to adequately exercise its religion, namely by preventing it from performing many of the communal prayers described in the Qu’ran.
On January 6, 2011, Al Falah submitted an application to the Town’s Planning Board to use the Property as a mosque. Al Falah submitted with the application a traffic impact analysis that showed that the proposed mosque would cause only a moderate increase in traffic. Two weeks later, members of Al Falah met with the Town’s planner, engineer, and traffic consultant to discuss the project. They did not identify any traffic related issues during the meeting.
The mosque proposal was met with anti-Muslim animus. In response to a January 17, 2011 article describing the proposal, one reader commented: “Just another place for terrorists to assemble under the guise of freedom of religion.” Further, between 400 and 500 people attended the first public hearing on January 24, 2011 to oppose Al Falah’s application, with some members of the public telling Al Falah to, among other things, “[g]et out of Bridgewater.”
Immediately prior to January 24 meeting, the mayor scheduled a “pre-meeting” to develop a plan for a report to be drafted that would recommend a new condition on houses of worship that would allegedly undermine Al Falah’s pending application by denying conditional use status for a house of worship at the Property. The new condition was premised on the ground that houses of worship in residential neighborhoods could cause traffic issues. Just two days later, the Town’s planner, without the benefit of an expert report, produced a draft report that houses of worship in residential zones could adversely affect traffic conditions. While the Township Planner described the draft report as a “quickie,” Al Falah viewed it as a pretext to deny its application. The Town’s Planning Board adopted the report and nine days later (February 17, 2011), the Township Council proposed a zoning ordinance that would deny conditional use status for a house of worship at the Property. The Town adopted the zoning ordinance (the “Ordinance”) on March 14, 2011, requiring Al Falah to obtain a variance to operate a mosque at the Property.
Al Falah sued the Town, claiming that the Town expeditiously enacted the Ordinance to avoid the time of application law, pursuant to which ordinances enacted after May 5, 2011 would not be considered in applications then pending. Conversely, zoning ordinances enacted before May 5 would be considered in pending applications. Al Falah asserted claims under the state and federal constitutions, RLUIPA, and state law.
The District Court granted a preliminary injunction in favor of Al Falah, finding that Al Falah was likely to succeed on the merits of its claim that the Town’s enactment of the Ordinance violated RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision. In particular, the District Court found that Al Falah had shown that the Town’s actions substantially burdened its religious exercise because there are no alternative sites for Al Falah to operate a mosque and the rented space it has used for the past decade does not allow it to effectively exercise its religious tenets. In addition, the temporal nexus between Al Falah’s application and the enactment of the Ordinance undermines the Planning Board’s claim that the Ordinance was in furtherance of a compelling government interest. Even if the Town had a compelling governmental interest, the Ordinance does not constitute the least restrictive means of furthering that interest because it was not clear what, if any alternatives the Town considered before expeditiously passing the Ordinance. In granting the preliminary injunction, the District Court ordered the following:
· Pending the final disposition of this action, Defendant is hereby enjoined, restrained and prohibited from enforcing [the] Ordinance  against Plaintiff.
· Pending the final disposition of this action, Defendant is hereby directed to resume consideration of Plaintiff’s January 6, 2011 Site Plan Application (as amended) without consideration of [the] Ordinance .
· Plaintiff is not required to post a bond pursuant to Rule 65(c) because this suit involves the enforcement of important federal rights and Defendant will not be harmed by the entry of this preliminary injunction.
The District Court denied the Town’s motion for summary judgment as to its federal claims, but granted it in part as to certain state law claims.
The decision in Al Falah Center v. Township of Bridgewater (D. N.J. 2013) can be accessed here.