Lawsuit claims board’s meeting approving $3.5 million payment to Muslims was illegal
A deal that many viewed as a $3.5 million appeasement payment to a mosque project has hit a huge snag, with a lawsuit claiming that the meeting at which township officials approved the settlement of an earlier lawsuit was illegal.
The case earlier raised eyebrows when officials in Bernards Township in New Jersey abruptly held a meeting on short notice to pay off the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge.
The Muslim organization sued after town officials said it couldn’t build a huge mosque in a residential area because the infrastructure wouldn’t support it.
According to the Thomas More Law Center, the settlement “reads more like an instrument of surrender.”
The settlement required the township to hold a public meeting about the mosque project, but it forbade anyone from commenting on “Islam” or “Muslims.”
A key tenet of Shariah, the Muslim law that governs both personal and political life, bans any negative comments about Islam or Muslims.
The township agreed on a $3.5 million payment and a “public hearing to approve the settlement.”
Now, the Thomas More Society says a federal judge has returned the case to state court to hear arguments that the public wasn’t given sufficient notice and then was banned from commenting.
U.S. District Judge Michael Shipp said the case is subject to state law and state issues, not federal jurisdiction.
Bernards Township “has not carried the burden of demonstrating that plaintiff’s state law claims present a substantial federal question or are preempted by federal law,” he wrote.
The judge granted a motion to send to case to Superior Court in Somerset County for resolution of state issues, specifically the alleged violation of the state’s Open Meetings Act.
“This is an important procedural victory for the residents of Bernards Township. Since May, the township has been trying to paper over the fact that it held a sham hearing in violation of New Jersey law. Now the New Jersey courts will have the opportunity to address and remedy the township’s violations of state law,” said Richard Thompson, president of the Thomas More Society.
His group explained: “In March 2016, the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge sued Bernards Township alleging it had discriminated against the Islamic Society when it declined to approve construction of a large mosque on a lot that was far too small to handle the contemplated structure. A few months later, the U. S. Department of Justice, which was then under the leadership of Obama-appointed Attorney General Loretta Lynch, filed a second lawsuit against the township.”
But, in alleged violation of state law, the township committee of Bernards Township and its planning board held a public meeting on May 23, 2017, in which they voted to settle the two lawsuits.
“Even though these settlement agreements were matters of extraordinary public interest because they required the payment … to a local mosque and its attorneys as well as the grant of a variance in the zoning ordinances to allow the mosque to be built, the public was not informed of the terms of the settlements nor allowed to comment on the vote until after it had been taken.”
After the settlement, lawyer Michael Hrycak sued on behalf of resident Cody Smith for the violations of the New Jersey Open Public Meetings Act.
“Though it was aware this lawsuit had been filed to void the settlement, on May 30, 2017, the township nonetheless asked Judge Shipp to enter an order based on the settlement agreements without telling him about the litigation in state court. On June 13, 2017, after apparently realizing that the earlier votes without public notice were invalid, the township held a second vote, supposedly to ratify the earlier vote. Then, on June 21, 2017, the township removed the state challenge under the OPMA to Judge Shipps’ court.”
Shipps, however, now has returned it to state court.
The plaintiff is asking the state court to declare the township’s vote to be invalid.
WND reported when the Thomas More Society sued the township on behalf of Christopher and Loretta Quick over the settlement’s mandate that residents not comment.
“The Quicks reside within 200 feet of the proposed mosque construction in a zoned residential area,” Thomas More explained. “Yet, the settlement agreement prohibits them from describing the many unique features of Islamic worship which will impact design of the building, traffic density, water and sewage, traffic control problems, road construction, and parking arrangements. According to the settlement agreement, ISBR is permitted to make statements concerning Christians and Jews and their places of worship, but in contrast, the agreement prohibits commentary relating to Islam or Muslims. In fact, ISBR has previously discussed the Christian and Jewish religions and their places of worship.”
IslamThreat.com estimates there were nearly 3,200 mosques in the United States as of 2015, with a massive surge following the 9/11 terror attack by Muslims.
The website lists 525 mosques in California, 507 in New York, 302 in Texas, 200 in Illinois and 186 in Florida.
The township agreement doesn’t provide the same protections to Christians, Jews and others, and critics contend that means that “defendants have shown preference for Islam and Muslims over other religions.”
WND reported earlier this year citizens fought back after the personal communications of neighbors of the Basking Ridge project were subpoenaed in the case.
Neighborhood residents, including Lori Caratzola, were named by ISBR in its lawsuit as a fervent opponent of the mosque. Caratzola faced demands for all of her personal communications that mention Muslims, Islam, mosques, the Quran, imams, burkas, hijabs, Shariah, jihad and other features of Islam.
“ISBR is setting a dangerous unconstitutional precedent by abusing a court process to chill and trample on the First Amendment rights of private citizens whose only involvement was to speak out against the mosque at public hearings,” Thompson said at the time.
He asked for the subpoenas to be thrown out “because the U.S. Supreme Court has held that speech at a public place on a matter of public concern is entitled to special protection.”
Caratzola charged the Muslims’ intent with her was “to embarrass, strike fear, silence and cause financial harm to any citizen who dared oppose his nonconforming project.”