Judge in mosque case: Bapt. church treated 'better'

BERNARDS TOWNSHIP, N.J. (BP) -- A federal judge's ruling that a New Jersey Islamic society faced unlawful religious discrimination has noted local Baptists were treated "differently and better" under similar circumstances.

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The ruling came in a case that stirred discussion among Southern Baptists last year when the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and the International Mission Board joined a friend of the court brief advocating religious liberty for the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, N.J. (ISBR). Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee President Frank S. Page clarified amid controversy at the time and again today (Jan. 6) that Cooperative Program funds have not been, and will not be, used to fund construction of mosques.

U.S. district judge Michael Shipp ruled Dec. 31 that the Planning Board of Bernards Township, N.J., violated federal law when it required the ISBR to include more than twice as much parking in its site plan for a proposed mosque as it required for local Christian and Jewish houses of worship.

The parking ordinance at issue requires "churches" -- a term that Shipp ruled includes Jewish, Islamic and Christian congregations -- to construct one parking space for every three seats in a proposed house of worship. Yet the Planning Board required the ISBR's plan for a 150-person mosque to include 107 parking spaces. The board cited a report suggesting mosques may require more parking than religious gathering places of other faiths.

Because peak Muslim worship time is Friday afternoon, township planners argued, attendees would likely come from work in separate cars rather than as families, the NJ.com news website reported.

The ISBR revised its plans to include the requisite 107 parking spaces but did not file a final site plan including the revision, Shipp stated. The society's submitted site plan was rejected in January 2016, prompting a lawsuit.

Shipp's opinion states Basking Ridge's Millington Baptist Church, which is not a Southern Baptist church, was "treated ... differently and better" than the Islamic society. The 57-page opinion noted the cases of two Jewish synagogues as well but mentioned Millington by name 22 times.

"In or around 1998," Millington applied for permission to construct a 1,200-seat worship center with 403 parking spaces -- approximately a 3-to-1 ratio -- and was granted approval in October 2000, Shipp stated. Around 2007, Millington was granted approval to build a youth and family ministry building with less than half of the parking spaces required by local ordinance, provided the congregation offered additional off-site parking with shuttle service.

While Millington's most recent site plan was approved after four public hearings, the ISBR's proposal resulted in 39 public hearings, which Shipp said is "more than the Planning Board held for any previous applicant."

Bernards Township argued the heightened requirement for the Islamic society was issued as a practical necessity rather than a form of religious discrimination.

Shipp ruled the township's intent was irrelevant. Discrimination occurred, he wrote, because the Planning Board "interpreted the Parking Ordinance to expressly distinguish treatment of Christian churches from Muslim mosques."

Shipp acknowledged the friend of the court brief joined by the ERLC and IMB, stating it "supports" the ISBR's arguments that unlawful religious discrimination occurred.

At the June 2016 SBC annual meeting in St. Louis, the brief was the subject of a messenger motion requesting that the SBC "withdraw" its friend of the court brief. The motion was ruled out of order because the ERLC and IMB joined the brief, not the SBC. Another motion that was ruled out of order called for all Southern Baptist officials or officers who support the rights of Muslims to build mosques in the U.S. to be immediately removed from their position within the SBC.

The SBC motions came amid ongoing discussion of the extent to which religious liberty should be granted to Muslims. The discussion included an editorial by a Baptist state paper editor arguing Islam may not qualify for all First Amendment protections. And in a blog post, ERLC President Russell Moore advocated religious liberty for practitioners of non-Christian religions.

Some of the ongoing discussion centered around a false, and originally satirical, claim propagated on the internet that the SBC and at least one cooperating state convention were building mosques.

Page underscored his refutation of that claim in a Jan. 6 statement to BP.

"Cooperative Program funds are used to further Southern Baptists' singular purpose -- to reach as many men, women, boys and girls as possible with the saving Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ," Page said. "We have never been asked for CP gifts to be used for the construction of any non-Christian house of worship; nor would we agree to such a request. In an age of satirical websites and fake news stories, Southern Baptists can know with confidence that claims to the contrary are spurious reports."

The case name is The Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, et al., v. Township of Bernards, et al.

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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