A religious liberty case that sparked controversy after two Southern Baptist Convention agencies filed legal briefs supporting the right of Muslims to build a mosque in New Jersey has been settled.
Bernards Township, N.J., will pay $3.25 million in damages and attorney’s fees to the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge in a settlement resolving two lawsuits announced May 30 by the U.S. Justice Department. It clears the way for construction of a 4,252-square-foot mosque on 4.3 acres after nearly four years of red tape spanning 39 planning board meetings and vocal opposition in the community.
“Federal law protects people of all religious communities from discrimination and unlawful obstacles when they seek to build a place of worship,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Tom Wheeler of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “Through this agreement, the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge and its members will be able to build a mosque and exercise the fundamental American right of freedom of worship.”
A year ago the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and International Mission Board joined a multi-faith coalition that also included the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty in a friend-of-the-court brief arguing for the Muslims filed by Becket, a nonprofit, public interest legal and educational institution based in Washington.
“A Muslim mosque cannot be subjected to a different land-use approval process than a Christian church simply because local protesters oppose the mosque,” said the brief claiming the township violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 when it denied the Islamic Center’s zoning application in December 2015.
A trustee of the International Mission Board resigned after learning the brief was filed, saying it was inconsistent for the agency to seek to evangelize Muslims around the world while aiding Muslims in the United States in propagating their faith. IMB President David Platt later apologized for the controversy and revised the agency’s policy to file amicus briefs that “speak only into situations that are directly tied to our mission.”
ERLC head Russell Moore defended the brief in response to a question at last year’s SBC annual meeting about “how in the world someone in the Southern Baptist Convention can support the defending of rights for Muslims to construct mosques in the United States when these people threaten our very way of existence as Christians and Americans?”
“You know, sometimes we have to deal with questions that are really complicated and we have to spend a lot of time thinking them through and not sure what the final result was going to be,” Moore replied. “Sometimes we have really hard decisions to make. This isn’t one of those things.”
“What it means to be a Baptist is to support soul freedom for everybody,” Moore continued to applause. “And brothers and sisters, when you have a government that says we can decide whether or not a house of worship can be constructed upon the theological beliefs of that house of worship, then there are going to be Southern Baptist churches in San Francisco and in New York and throughout this country who are not going to be able to build.”
A turning point in the case occurred last New Year’s Eve when a federal judge declared the township’s requirement that a proposed mosque have more parking spaces than churches or synagogues was unconstitutional, gutting the planning commission’s main argument that because Muslims worship on Friday a mosque would impact traffic differently than a church or synagogue gathering during the weekend.
In a statement May 30 township officials insisted the planning board’s denial “was based on accepted land use criteria only” but on advice of legal counsel they agreed that settling the lawsuit “represents the most effective path forward to mitigate the financial risk of protracted litigation as well as resolve the issue of the ISBR’s proposed house of worship.”