In 2011, the Muslim Community in Bridgewater, NJ and the surrounding suburbs wanted to convert an existing, empty building into an Islamic Center with a mosque, daycare, elementary school, and community center, called the Al Falah Center. Even though hearings for the proposed Al Falah Center were already underway, Bridgewater Township changed its zoning laws while the proposal was under review. The new zoning ordinance stipulated that places of worship could only be situated along designated (approved) major roads. The proposed site for the Islamic Center, which was to be in the building previously used for the Redwood Inn, was not on one of these roads (Fleischer 2011, Apr 28). The reasons the town gave for the ordinances were traffic as well as the desire to preserve the “residential character” of the neighborhoods. The town had commissioned several professional reports: a traffic report, environmental report, and a noise issue report. All reports found no problem with the proposed location for the Al Falah Center (Levine 2011, Jan 21).
The first meeting of the Planning Board to review the proposal for the Islamic Center was scheduled to be held on January 24th, 2011. The meeting, however, was postponed until February 28th following vocal protests by residents. On February 28th, although a meeting was held, the final vote to approve the Center was postponed to March 28th. The reason given for delaying the procedures was that a ‘larger venue was needed’ to accommodate attendance at the hearings (“Islamic group sues…” 2011, Apr 28). On March 14th, the town changed its zoning ordinance limiting houses of worship to specific main roads. The new ordinance allowed the town to reject Al Falah’s proposal (Fleischer 2011, Apr 28). Al Falah objected to the process of delaying the approval process until after the town had changed its zoning regulations so that the town would no longer have to evaluate the Center’s application based on zoning laws in place at the time of the original application, which would have significantly increased the Center’s chances of approval. On April 26th, the Al Falah Center filed a lawsuit in federal district court in NJ against the town, which is now case No. 11-2397 (Al Falah Center vs. Twp of Bridgewater, 2014).
The case by the Al Falah Center was built on the premise that in unnaturally accelerating the process of changing zoning ordinances, Bridgewater Township unfairly treated religious institutions as “less than equal” to nonreligious ones (Deak 2015, Aug 13). The federal court, led by Judge Shipp, sided with the Al Falah Center; the judge ruled that the Planning Board had to re-hear the mosque application without applying the new ordinance. The lawsuit was completed in September 2013. Negotiations, however, continued until December 2014. The township was still pushing back after Judge Shipp’s decision and filed a case to the U.S. Court of Appeals, which was stopped by an oppositional motion by the Al Falah Center and Judge Shipp’s denial of the town’s appeal (“Al Falah Center v. Township” 2015, Jan 28).
Al Falah’s case was built on the ordinance being passed very fast, rather than the ordinance itself (Deak 2014, Dec 2). The Township maintained that the Al Falah Center could not be built on Mountaintop Road, and bought a $2.75 million dollar property to accommodate them elsewhere. In the final settlement from December 2014, the Township had to pay the Al Falah Center $5 million for damages incurred. Today, the Al Falah Center is up and running. Its official address is in Bedminster, which is a neighboring town of Bridgewater, also in Somerset County. While fundraising for the Islamic Center on the new property continues, the community is running its various programs such as daily prayers, the Friday congregational prayer, and educational activities out of different locations in the area: The Friday congregational prayer takes place in the banquet hall of a Ukrainian Catholic Church in neighboring Hillsborough Township (“Friday [Jummah] Prayer” 2018, May 17).
Judge Shipp emphasized that the Muslim community of Somerset County had been deprived of a house of worship for many years (Louis C. Hochman, B. 2014, Dec 7) and that the untimely and rushed passing of the zoning ordinance was unlawful. The strong support from a federal court helped increase the Muslim community’s visibility within the American framework. The damages paid by Bridgewater Township also helped jumpstart Al Falah’s operations on the Islamic Center. This case is often held up as an example of a lawsuit gone well for Muslims and inspires other groups in their own conflicts (Associated Press Newswires. 2017, May 24) with local government institutions to pursue their claims in the court system (“House Homeland Security” 2012, Jun 20).