By David O'Reilly

The U.S. Justice Department has sued Bernards Township, N.J.,  alleging that it delayed for nearly four years an Islamic community's effort to build a mosque, and ultimately denied the application out of prejudice against Muslims.

The department asserts in a complaint filed in federal court this week that the affluent North Jersey suburb violated federal law by denying approval to the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, saying its planning board applied standards and procedures it had not used in cases involving other religious groups.

"Township officials kept moving the goalposts by using ever-changing local requirements to effectively deny this religious community the same access as other faiths," Paul Fishman, U.S. attorney for New Jersey, said in a statement.

The Islamic Society acquired a four-acre site in 2011, and in April 2012 applied to the planning board for a permit to build a 4,252-square-foot mosque facility with 50 parking spaces.

The land was in a residential zone that "permitted the construction of places of worship as a matter of right," the Justice Department said. It asserts that the township later amended its zoning ordinance to thwart the application.

The planning board denied the application in December, the first time it had denied a site plan for a house of worship since 1994.

In a statement four days before the filing, and in apparent anticipation of it, Bernards Township said the planning board's denial "was based on legitimate land use and safety concerns which plaintiffs ... refused to address."

It called the Justice Department's investigation "inappropriate at best" and said the investigation "raises serious constitutional issues."

Mohammad Ali Chaudry, president of the Islamic Society, said the federal lawsuit "eviscerates the township's claim that the denial was based on legitimate land-use issues."

"Our community deserves its own place to pray, and we will ensure we get it by standing up for our constitutional rights in court," said Chaudry, a former mayor of the township and a former member of the school board.

(c)2016 The Philadelphia Inquirer