Thinking about J Street
Freedom - a poem about liberation

On land use zoning and discrimination (an update on the Al Falah Center & more)

I posted a few weeks ago about the Al Falah Center, an initiative of the Muslim community in Bridgewater, NJ, and about local opposition to the proposed mosque, including opposition from local Tea Party leaders (as noted in this New Jersey Jewish News article.) My post was revised into a letter which the rabbinic cabinet of Jewish Voice for Peace shared with representatives from the Muslim community in Bridgewater. After I made a few revisions per their request, the letter was co-signed by 35 rabbis, cantors, and rabbinic students. (For those who are interested, the text of the amended letter appears below the extended-entry cut.)

The Bridgewater Town Council met recently, and voted unanimously in support of changing the town's zoning laws to block the Al Falah Center's application. Members of the Muslim community continue to meet with Town Council members in hopes of reaching an amicable solution. I'm also told that the Bridgewater Muslim community has offered to take the religious school out of their plans, in a further attempt to address the broader community's traffic concerns.

There was a fairly spirited conversation in the comments section of my previous post. Some Bridgewater Muslim residents commented / emailed me to say that they feel discriminated against, they're receiving death threats and harassment, and they're doing everything they can to work with the rest of the town and its needs. Other Bridgewater residents, members of other faith traditions, commented to say that they have nothing against Muslims and that their concerns have purely to do with traffic patterns.

I understand that the traffic concerns are real, but want to note that they may also simultaneously mask anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant sentiment. As the revised letter (below the cut) notes, changing zoning in order to block the construction of a minority group's house of worship is a classic example of discrimination. Regardless of whether those who are arguing against the center mean to be discriminatory, discrimination is the end result of their line of argument.

Intriguingly, half an hour away there is a similar dispute taking place wherein a Chabad rabbi wants to build a synagogue and local opposition argues that it would set a "bad precedent" -- see Millburn residents fight construction of synagogue in residential neighborhood and Neighbors Protest Possible Resolution to Build Synagogue in Short Hills. The latter article makes the case that opposition to the building of the Chai Center is really anti-Orthodox or anti-Chabad sentiment -- as does this New York Times piece, New Jersey Neighbors Protest a Proposed Synagogue.

For more background on the matter of land use zoning being used to discriminate against minority religious groups, here's a link to a fascinating amicus brief presented by the Anti-Defamation League in 2004: Amicus Brief: Murphy v. Zoning Commission of the Town of New Milford. [pdf] (That's a link to the actual amicus brief; here's a summary of the case.) I recommend especially section C: Congress Compiled Significant Evidence That Land Use Laws Continue to Be Used To Discriminate Against Religious Groups. (In response to that evidence, Congress unanimously passed The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act in 2000.)

For those who are interested in learning more about what's happening in Bridgewater, and/or in being part of the conversation there, two upcoming meetings may be of interest: a public hearing on the al-Falah Center application (February 28th at 7pm, Performing Arts Bldg / Somerset County Vocational & Tech, 14 Vogt Drive) and a public hearing on changing Bridgewater's zoning laws for houses of worship (March 3 at 7pm, Bridgewater-Raritan High School, 600 Garretson Road.)

Here's the text of the letter which went out from the Jewish Voice for Peace rabbinic cabinet. (You can see the list of signatories on the JVP website, though as of this writing, that page features the original version of the letter and not the revised version which appears below.)

It has come to our attention that the Muslim community in Bridgewater, NJ, would like to build a community center, named the al-Falah Center. The center would hold a mosque and prayer space, as well as a daycare and a K-8 elementary school. [Addendum: plans for the daycare and school have now been tabled.] Their plans are to build it on the property which was formerly the Redwood Inn, which they have rented in the past.

Bridgewater is already a religiously diverse community, home to seventeen Christian churches, a convent, a Jewish synagogue, two Hindu temples, and one Sikh temple. The organizers of the al-Falah center have promised not to broadcast the call to prayer, out of consideration for their neighbors.

The Muslim community has run into difficulties, and the Bridgewater Planning Board has adopted a change in the town's Master Plan which now recommends that the town change its zoning ordinances.

Such a change in land use zoning is illegal under the law known as RLUIPA, which states that "No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution."

Changing land use zoning in order to block the construction of a minority community’s house of worship is a classic tactic of discrimination. We believe that it is unjust to change the neighborhood's zoning in order to keep the Muslim community from gathering there.

Those who would worship at the alFalah Center are not outsiders to the Bridgewater community; they are part of that community, and have expressed the clear desire to accomodate the neighborhood’s concerns.

Our religious community has living memory of being mistreated for our differences, and we believe that we have an obligation to speak out against such mistreatment of others. The verse most often repeated in Torah is "Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." The Talmud tells us that this verse appears in the Torah 36 times; it must be important.

May we all be moved by Torah's call to place ourselves in the other’s shoes. It is our fervent prayer that the various communities who call Bridgewater home find a way to relate to one another in compassion and understanding, not in mistrust and fear. May it happen speedily and in our day.