The suburban town of Bridgewater in central New Jersey is finding itself in the news for less than flattering reasons. A recent New York Times editorial has called attention to the affluent town’s lack of tolerance for the building of a mosque within its borders.
In January, a Muslim congregation, alFalah, filed to turn the former Redwood Inn into a mosque and religious school, with additional facilities for a day care center, after school programs and a center for senior citizens. The Bridgewater’s township council, planning board and Mayor Patricia Flannery proceeded to push through a zoning change according to which houses of worship could not operate on the inn’s property. The zoning change was made just before May 5, when a state statute that would have permitted the mosque to be built went into effect.
In its “reexamination report,” the township cited “traffic concerns,” although an earlier report “found no such issues, and both the town’s traffic expert and the county’s planning board found that the mosque would have only a minimal effect on traffic.” Says the New Jersey Jewish News:
Some area residents, including members of the Somerset County Tea Party, said they were troubled about traffic congestion and “land-use issues.”
“The fact that the center would contain a Muslim, rather than Christian or Jewish, house of worship doesn’t trouble me at all,” Tea Party spokesperson James Lefkowitz told NJJN in February.
But as Etzion Neuer, NJ regional director of the Anti-Defamation League which is supporting alFalah’s right to build the mosque, said after visiting the site in July:
“The site is in a commercial zone. It is set back and blocked by high trees all around. There have been arguments put forth by the folks in the area, and after reviewing their complaints we were not convinced by their arguments. The reasons given to block the mosque were not terribly compelling.”
Honestly, it’s not too hard to cite “traffic concerns” when proposals arise to build anything in New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the US. As Neuer comments,
“This attempt to create zoning ex post facto has some rather sinister elements to it.”
AlFalah had rented the Redwood Inn space since 2008, when the inn had closed. At that time, the inn could be used as a house of worship under a Bridgewater zoning ordinance. But then alFalah sought to buy the property and convert it into an Islamic center; on March 14, the Bridgewater Township Council passed a new law “restricting houses of worship, schools, and country clubs to major roads in the township.” After two months, the Muslim congregation sued Bridgewater and the members of its council and planning board, saying that the new law violated the New Jersey Law against Discrimination and the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which “gives religious groups wide latitude in circumventing local zoning laws that restrict houses of worship.”
In June, a federal judge ruled that a lawsuit challenging the town’s decision can go forward and the case is currently pending before the United States District Court in Trenton. The US Justice Department is also conducting its own investigation.
The mosque has won the support of an interfaith coalition, says the New Jersey Jewish News, which points out that Bridgewater has 17 churches, a Catholic convent, a synagogue, two Hindu temples and one Sikh temple. Rabbi Eric J. Greenberg, coordinator of the Interfaith Coalition on Mosques, says that “There certainly has not been opposition to synagogues and churches that includes the kind of bigotry we’ve seen against mosques.”
As the New York Times says, Mayor Michael Bloomburg has “rightly stood up for religious liberty against vitriolic opposition to the construction of an Islamic center in Lower Manhattan”; the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission has allowed for the project to proceed, amid heated Islamophobic rhetoric.
Surely Bridgewater, New Jersey, could do the right thing, too?
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Photo by Viktor Nagornyy