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.

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Photo of Evan Seeman Evan Seeman

Evan J. Seeman is a lawyer in Robinson+Cole’s Hartford office and focuses his practice on land use, real estate, environmental, and regulatory matters, representing local governments, developers and advocacy groups. He has spoken and written about RLUIPA, and was a lead author of…

Evan J. Seeman is a lawyer in Robinson+Cole’s Hartford office and focuses his practice on land use, real estate, environmental, and regulatory matters, representing local governments, developers and advocacy groups. He has spoken and written about RLUIPA, and was a lead author of an amicus curiae brief at the petition stage before the United States Supreme Court in a RLUIPA case entitled City of San Leandro v. International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

Evan serves as the Secretary/Treasurer of the APA’s Planning & Law Division. He also serves as the Chair of the Planning & Zoning Section of the Connecticut Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Section, and is the former Co-Chair of its Municipal Law Section. He has been named to the Connecticut Super Lawyers® list as a Rising Star in the area of Land Use Law for 2013 and 2014. He received his B.A. in political science and Russian studies (with honors) from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where he was selected as the President’s Fellow in the Department of Modern Languages and Literature. Evan received his Juris Doctor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, where he served on the Connecticut Law Review. While in law school, he interned with the Connecticut Office of the Attorney General in the environmental department, and served as a judicial intern for the judges of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Court. Following law school, Evan clerked for the Honorable F. Herbert Gruendel of the Connecticut Appellate Court.

Photo of Karla Chaffee Karla Chaffee

Karla L. Chaffee is a member of Robinson+Cole’s Real Estate + Development Group and is based in the Boston office, focusing on a variety of land use and environmental matters. Karla’s interest in RLUIPA began in law school when she co-authored, “Six

Karla L. Chaffee is a member of Robinson+Cole’s Real Estate + Development Group and is based in the Boston office, focusing on a variety of land use and environmental matters. Karla’s interest in RLUIPA began in law school when she co-authored, “Six Fact Patterns of Substantial Burden in RLUIPA: Lessons for Potential Litigants,” (with Dwight Merriam) published in Albany Government Law Review (Spring 2009). Karla has continued to write and speak on RLUIPA and has represented clients in several federal proceedings, including RLUIPA, First Amendment, and Equal Protection claims. In addition to her RLUIPA practice, Karla has litigated complex environmental matters, defending claims under Massachusetts Chapter 21E. Karla’s transactional experience includes pre-acquisition and pre-financing due diligence, environmental risk assessment and risk mitigation. She also represents clients seeking local zoning approvals and counsels them on the impact of proposed or recently enacted land use legislation, as well as on land use trends across the country.

Karla is also a proud member of Robinson+Cole’s Pro Bono Committee and is dedicated to maintaining pro bono work as part of her practice. Her pro bono clients include individuals and families seeking asylum in the United States. She has also represented nonprofit organizations in obtaining tax-exempt status and has served as legal counsel in a zoning appeal for a nonprofit association created to support and protect a national park.