BAYONNE, N.J. (AP) — A New Jersey Muslim group's two-year effort to convert an abandoned warehouse into a mosque and community center was met by virulent attacks against their religion and then unfairly voted down by a zoning board, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday.
The Bayonne Muslims sued the working-class city across the harbor from New York and its zoning board after their request was turned down in March, following a meeting that included a series of anti-Muslim comments from community members. The chairman of the board at one point was forced to tell some in the audience to stop talking about religion.
The zoning board voted 4-3 in favor of the mosque proposal, but it needed a minimum of five votes to pass. Those who voted against it cited parking and traffic concerns, although the Bayonne Muslims say that the building is located in a non-congested part of the city with ample parking.
Bayonne's law director said the city does not comment on active litigation, and a lawyer representing the zoning board wasn't immediately available for comment.
The suit comes two days after another town in New Jersey, Bernards Township, agreed to settle two lawsuits over its denial of a proposed mosque. A similar lawsuit cost nearby Bridgewater Township almost $8 million in a 2014 settlement.
The Bayonne Muslims' lawsuit attacks the zoning board's reasoning for its denials, but also lays out the anti-Muslim attacks they were faced with after proposing the community center.
They say that included fliers calling for boycotts of Muslim-owned businesses with references to the Sept. 11 attacks and anti-Muslim graffiti on the walls of the church they rented for prayer services. Signs saying "Save Bayonne" and "Stop the mosque" were displayed around the town.
At one zoning board hearing, a group began loudly reciting a Christian prayer while a group of Muslim attendees was praying quietly in a corner, the suit says. One person argued to the zoning board that the mosque should be denied because people would become radicalized and kill people, while another said that the Muslim' beliefs should be carefully examined, according to the suit.
The lawsuit notes that Bayonne has nearly three dozen Christian and Jewish houses of worship, but no permanent mosque.
It says that the Bayonne Muslims could not attract a fulltime spiritual leader or provide proper religious and social services without a permanent home.
The lease that the group had to use the church's basement expired in January and its members are now forced to travel to other towns to pray.