Sunday, March 20, 2016

Masking an "ugly spectacle" of religious freedom?

Mohammed Ali Chaudry, the former mayor of Basking Ridge, an affluent suburban town in New Jersey, sued Bernards Township, the township committee and its planning board for denying proposed plans to build a mosque in the town. Chaudry, the president of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, along with the other members of the group, complain that the denial of their plans is due to manufactured excuses by the township committee. The plans were unanimously denied this past December after four years of public hearings. The town committee and the Islam Society met 39 times to negotiate specifics of the mosque. The four acres of land that the Islam Society purchased was approved for the zoning of "houses of worship". The design of the mosque was adjusted so that it aesthetically fit in with the rest of the surrounding community. It did not include a dome, which is a typical architectural feature of mosques, and its minarets were planned to be lower than steeples on churches in the same town. The reasoning behind the plan's denial was concluded to be due to a "lack of details" regarding parking, traffic safety, and buffer zones. 

However, there are opposing groups within the town that have openly expressed their worries about the mosque potentially housing terrorists. They also expressed their beliefs that Islamic law must be opposed. One Basking Ridge resident, Lori Caratzola stated, "Are we not allowed to voice concerns about a religion, or is it not O.K. just about Islam?" Caratzola was an opponent of the mosque. Due to Caratzola's urging the town also increased the required acreage for "houses of worship" to six acres. This imposes further issues for the proposed mosque that did not previously exist. Also, throughout the four years of negotiation, other churches and synagogues faced no resistance of their developmental applications. The lawsuit filed by the Islamic Society states that "these proceedings took place against a backdrop of ugly spectacle". The suit also states that the decision imposes limitations on their free exercise of religion. This leads to the question of whether or not the basis of the plan's denial is truly justified by mere parking and traffic issues. Is the Bernards Township committee violating the Free Exercise Clause or is their reasoning justified? 

I believe that the decision of this case does in fact violate the Free Exercise Clause and that the plans for the mosque should have been approved. In 2012, when the first plans of the mosque were proposed, the land that the Islamic Society purchased clearly permitted the proposed mosque. They had the appropriate amount of acreage and zoning was permitted for "houses of worship", which does not exclude mosques or any other house of worship that may not encompass the religious beliefs of many town citizens. Whenever the town would criticize specifics of the plans, the Islamic Society had no issue adjusting them to meet their needs. However, 39 public hearings seems excessive for the issues being discussed. One potential problem with the mosque was that the headlights of cars in the mosque's parking lot would disturb people living in homes separated by a line of trees. This issue does not seem to be one that would restrict the construction of this mosque all together. Also, the fact that the regulation regarding proper acreage was adjusted once the mosque's plans were proposed seems restricting on the basis of religion. Although no personal beliefs about Muslims or their faith were expressed in the public hearings, anti-Islamic sentiments were closely related to decisions made by the town committee. Caratzola's speech is an example of this relationship. The Free Exercise Clause allows for the equal treatment of all religions, however this case does not follow those beliefs. If the town committee allowed for the Islamic Society's free exercise of religion, they would have come to final conclusions on the parking and traffic issues until the mosque fit all needed regulations to be built. Other secular buildings were approved within these four years of negotiation which also leads me to believe that the committee had other motives behind their decision that they masked with minor traffic, buffer zone and parking issues. 

6 comments:

Sarah A said...

Lauren- I absolutely agree. While the townships decision may be betray in theory, in practice, it seems like the islamophobia in the community are the true driving force behind preventing a mosque, not the parking zoning. If that were the case, those issues could have easily been resolved in less than 30+ meetings. The people who intended to build this mosque should be free to practice their religion in this township and are being preventing from doing so by those afraid of terrorism.

Caroline S. said...

I agree with both Lauren and Sarah. The township's repeated denial of the mosk's plans is clearly a violation of the Free Exercise Clause. Lauren pointed out in her article: "throughout the four years of negotiation, other churches and synagogues faced no resistance of their developmental applications." These houses of worship did not face the same level of scrutiny that the mosk faced, which means the township intentionally created barriers against a particular religious sect, which means that the laws were not neutral for all religions. Although there were no direct discussions about Islam or the township's feelings about the religion, it is clear that the 39 town hearings were excessive and had a discriminatory undertone to them. I believe that the mosk should be built and that the measures the township has taken to prevent this mosk's existence should be declared illegal.

Matthew L. said...

Given what has been brought up in this article, I would agree that this a violation of the First Amendment rights of those belonging to this religion, as well as a clear sign of discrimination. I believe that the area which was approved for houses of worship to be built upon should have proved an adequate site for the mosque. Moreover, I believe that the mosque designers did their best to comply with the town's wishes as they modified their building to provide the least impact on the community. Finally, I believe that in the course of 39 meetings, the town could have mentioned that there were requirements lacking detail, yet there does not appear to be any mention of this.

Alex Puleo said...

I agree with previous commenters. This seems to be more of an issue pertaining to islamophobia rather than zoning permits for parking. Thus, I do not believe that is a justified reason to disallow the Muslim community within Basking Ridge to build a mosque in order to further the practice of their religion. Denying this group the right to build a place of worship infringes on their First Amendment right.

Caroline Vauzelle said...

I know that we said in class that we should not question people's motives, but at the same time in this case that is exactly what the town is doing with the Muslim community. One could even argue that it is going as far as defamation, for they are accusing them to be potential terrorists. Associating Islam with radical Islam has been a very common thing in media recently, and shows a complete lack of knowledge about Islam. It is as far fetched as associating “mainstream” Christianity to – for instance – fundamentalist Catholicism, as exists in Europe. Also, the fact that the Muslim community had to abide to the demands of the town's people as far as changing the very form of their official house of worship is particularly outraging and seems to me like going completely against the Free Exercise clause.

Kiriko Masek said...

I found that the town's denial of the mosque was completely biased and their intentions were motivated by personal interest rather than parking and traffic violations as they claimed. Clearly the town is making their decisions based of off stereotypes associated with the Islamic society. The fact that the town's people stated that they are worried about the mosque being a potential lure for terrorists just proves the biased beliefs that the town has towards the members of the Muslim community. The Islamic societies right to practice religion is being violated due to the stereotypes associated with their religion.