Federal judge rules New Jersey town discriminated in mosque case

A Muslim congregation that has waged a five-year battle against a New Jersey town for the right to build a mosque has moved "one step closer" to finally having a place to pray.

A federal judge ruled that Bernards Township discriminated against the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge by requiring it to provide more parking spots for their proposed mosque than other places of worship in the town.

It was the latest development in a multi-year battle that has involved dozens of public hearings as well as allegations of anti-Muslim animus.

"This brings the local community one step closer to have a place of their own in this township," Adeel Abdullah Mangi, an attorney representing the society, told NBC News on Monday."That means everything to the local Muslims."

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But Bernards Township Mayor Carol Bianchi refused to wave the white flag Monday. She said the township is weighing its next legal move and referred a reporter to her earlier statement criticizing U.S. District Court Judge Michael A. Shipp's ruling.

"This decision has major implications for municipal land use boards and their ability to determine the actual off-street parking needs of proposed projects without fear of alleged (religious land-use) violations," Bianchi's statement read. "The Township vehemently disagrees with the Court's decision and awaits a full analysis of the 57-page decision by its attorneys, who only learned of the decision on New Year's Day."

Under township rules, churches are required to provide one parking spot for every three pew seats.

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Shipp, in his ruling Saturday, concluded the township treated the Muslim group differently from other religious groups by insisting that it provide even more parking. He wrote the 3-to-1 parking ratio for churches applies equally to mosques and synagogues.

"Viewing the pleadings in the light most favorable to defendants, the court finds that defendants discriminatorily applied the parking ordinance on the basis of religion," Shipp wrote.

In oral arguments on Dec. 20, township attorney Howard Mankoff denied the board applied different standards based on religion. He insisted that a mosque is not considered a church under the township definition, adding that "they're different because they have different needs."

Mosque worshippers, Mankoff said, would likely be arriving one per car, straight from work, for the most well-attended religious services on Friday afternoons. He argued that the planning board should be allowed some discretion in applying the township parking ordinance.

In its 2012 application to build the 4,252-square-foot mosque, the society asked for 50 parking spots, based on a maximum attendance of 150 worshipers over the next five to 10 years.

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The board, which leaned heavily on the findings of a traffic engineer hired by a group opposed to the mosque, insisted the mosque provide 107 parking spaces.

The New Year's Eve decision is the latest development in a case that has drawn national attention and prompted the Justice Department to file its own federal suit against Bernards Township in November.