The US Department of Justice has opened an investigation into a city’s rejection of a planned mosque, following claims of anti-Muslim bias.
The Bayonne Muslims of New Jersey, the non-profit group seeking to construct the mosque, filed a federal case against Bayonne last week.
A spokesman for the department said on Tuesday that the US Attorney’s office in New Jersey and members of the department’s civil rights headquarters in Washington, DC, were examining the case.
Federal law prohibits local governments from imposing undue burden on religious exercise through land use regulations.
Bayonne officials could not immediately be reached for comment late on Tuesday.
The town did not admit any wrongdoing under the agreements.
Central to the town’s argument against the building of the mosque was parking.
Township planners had concluded that because Friday afternoon was considered peak worship time, congregants would most likely be arriving straight from work and would each need a parking space.
‘Bigotry against Muslims’
But a federal judge disagreed, and wrote in a ruling on December 31 that the town had not conducted similar assessments of worship habits when churches or synagogues had made applications.
Abdul Hameed Butt, who is filing the case, said: “As is happening in towns across America, phony zoning issues were used to block our mosque because of bigotry against Muslims.”
According to Butt’s statement, published by NJ.com on Thursday, he added: “The zoning board subjected our application to completely different standards to those it applied to Christian churches.”
Members of the community have rented a Catholic school building to congregate over the past six years, according to the Bayonne Muslims website.
The group wishes to convert a 23,000 square-foot warehouse into a community centre with a prayer hall, clasrooms, offices, a library and a gym.
More than 60,000 people live in Bayonne.
Hundreds of people support a Facebook page titled “Stop the mosque in Bayonne”.
On March 19, after the page posted an article depicting a meeting of some members of the town’s Muslim community, one user wrote: “We have pictures of all Muslims that were at this meeting. We will find out who you are affiliated with. Pack your bags, it’s time to be deported.”
News of the federal probe came on the same day that another New Jersey municipality, Bernards Township, agreed to pay $3.25m to resolve allegations by the US government and a Muslim group that the town illegally rejected plans for a mosque.
The agreement between Bernards, which is located about 30 miles (48 km) west of New York City, and the US Department of Justice will allow the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge to build a new prayer facility.
The US government has other pending lawsuits against localities over denials of mosques, including in Bensalem, Pennsylvania; Des Plaines, Illinois; and Culpeper County, Virginia.