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Town agrees to settle lawsuits after denying plan for mosque

FILE – In this Friday, Sept. 23, 2016 file photo, Iftakhar Ahmad, top, a visiting religious leader from Pakistan, leads a prayer service at the Bernards Township Community Center in Basking Ridge, N.J. The Bernards Township committee voted Tuesday, May 23, 2017, to settle two lawsuits over its denial of a proposed mosque, filed by the U.S. Justice Department and the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge. Some residents say their opposition is because of the selected location, not religious intolerance. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

BERNARDS TOWNSHIP, N.J. (AP) — A New Jersey town has agreed to settle two lawsuits over its denial of a proposed mosque.

Following a meeting with the planning board, the Bernards Township committee voted 4-1 on Tuesday night to settle the lawsuits filed by the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge and the Department of Justice.

The Islamic Society sued the town in federal court in March 2016, several months after its application to build the mosque was denied after more than three years and 39 public hearings.

The Department of Justice sued Bernards Township later that year, alleging that the town discriminated against the Islamic Society by amending its zoning ordinances and treating the group differently than it treated other religious groups.

A federal judge ruled on New Year’s Eve that the town had violated anti-discrimination laws by insisting that the proposed mosque have more parking spaces than churches of synagogues.

Town Mayor Carolyn Gaziano told NJ.com (http://bit.ly/2qbvOrE ) the terms of the settlement will not be made public until they are finalized.

A similar lawsuit cost nearby Bridgewater Township almost $8 million in a 2014 settlement. The Al Falah Center claimed in the lawsuit it was denied permission to build a mosque.

Out of the nearly two dozen Basking Ridge residents that spoke during Tuesday’s meeting, all but two asked the committee not to settle.

Residents said the rejection was due to the location, not religious intolerance. The proposed mosque would have been built in a residential neighborhood.

Society member Dr. Yasmine Khalil said she supports the settlement. Khalil said after a four-year ordeal it is time for the town to heal.

“I think it’s time to build a bridge between neighbors and work together as a whole community,” she said.

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