Bridgewater loses bid to delay court order on mosque proposal

A federal judge has denied Bridgewater’s request to delay a court order directing township officials to reconsider plans for a proposed mosque without applying an ordinance that Muslims said was used to undermine their project.

U.S. District Judge Michael Shipp on Monday rejected the township’s motion to stay his Sept. 30 order while officials appeal. In his latest ruling, Shipp said Bridgewater “has not sufficiently established that it has a likelihood of success on the merits of its appeal.”

The township is now planning to seek a stay of Shipp’s original order from a higher court, said Marc Haefner, an attorney representing the municipality.

That order instructed the Bridgewater Planning Board to resume consideration of the mosque proposed by the alFalah Center without the use of that controversial ordinance. Public hearings on the proposal are scheduled to begin Jan. 21.

Looking for its first permanent spiritual home, the center wants to renovate the former Redwood Inn on Mountain Top Road for use as a mosque. After the group submitted its application in January 2011, the township planner produced findings that houses of worship in residential zones could cause traffic issues, court papers say.

Based on the planner’s report, the Township Council in March 2011 adopted an ordinance that limited certain uses, including houses of worship, country clubs and schools, to certain major roads. Under that ordinance, the center must seek a use variance from the township’s zoning board to use the Mountain Top Road location.

Due to that new requirement, the planning board dismissed the center’s application in April 2011, and the center filed a lawsuit against the township later that month. The center has alleged township officials discriminated against the group on a religious basis.

Township officials have said there is no evidence of religious discrimination, and maintain that the ordinance was intended to preserve the residential character of the municipality’s various neighborhoods, court papers say.

Haefner argued that since the center has not sought the use variance, its claims of being harmed are “speculative and premature.” “Until they seek the variance and there’s a ruling on the variance, it’s not even clear that they’ve been injured,” Haefner said.

But after weighing that argument, Shipp still found that the center had suffered “irreparable harm,” according to his Sept. 30 opinion.

Star-Ledger, 7 January 2013