The Township of Bridgewater, New Jersey has agreed to pay nearly $8 million to settle a lawsuit over claims that its denial of Al Falah Center’s proposal to construct a mosque violated the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The Center, which sought to use a former hotel on Mountain Top Road as a mosque, has agreed to re-locate to a 15-acre site between Routes 202-206 and Route 287. The Township will pay $2.75 million for the 15-acre site and its insurance carrier will cover $5 million for alleged damages, costs, and attorneys’ fees. The $7.75 million is believed to be the most ever paid to settle a RLUIPA suit.
The lawsuit began in 2010 after the Township denied the Center’s proposal to use the former hotel property as a mosque. The proposal allegedly was met with “anti-Muslim prejudice within the community, including internet postings and e-mail correspondence.” In response to a January 17, 2011 article describing the planned mosque, one reader commented: “Just another place for terrorists to assemble under the guise of freedom of religion.” The Center alleged that after it had submitted its application, the Township quickly enacted a new zoning ordinance (Ordinance 11-03) to thwart its proposal. The new ordinance required that “houses of worship” in residential zones have “principal access on a State Highway or County road,” or certain other major roads. The Township used the new ordinance to deny the mosque proposal, since the Mountain Top Road property, which is in a residential zone, lacks principal access to any of these roads. The Township claimed the new ordinance was meant to protect residential neighborhoods from traffic issues. The Center asserted the ordinance was pretextual and that behind it all was the intent to stop the mosque from being built. The District Court agreed and, in 2013, granted a preliminary injunction after finding the Center was likely to prevail on its claim that the Township’s actions substantially burdened the Muslim group’s religious exercise (court decision available here and prior post here).
The Center’s settlement follows another notable RLUIPA settlement involving a mosque – this past September, the City of Norwalk, Connecticut agreed to pay $2 million to Al Madany Islamic Center of Norwalk for Al Madany to find a new location for a house of worship (prior post here). It also surpasses the $6.5 million paid by the Town of Greenburgh, New York to settle a RLUIPA suit brought by Fortress Bible Church (prior post here).
Municipalities reviewing applications for religious uses may wish to carefully consider whether their actions could subject them to RLUIPA litigation. In many situations, they may have legitimate defenses to such claims while in others they may not. To learn more about these types of claims, municipal officials may wish to read the articles A $6.5 Million Lesson in RLUIPA Defense, published by the Planning & Law Division of the American Planning Association, and One (1) Ounce of RLUIPA Prevention, published by the International Municipal Lawyers Association.