A New Jersey township must pay a mosque $3.25 million and submit to diversity and inclusion training to settle lawsuits alleging religious discrimination.
Last year the case led to turmoil within the Southern Baptist Convention after the denomination’s International Mission Board (IMB) and Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) filed friend-of-the-court briefs on behalf of the mosque in an effort to promote religious freedom. The National Association of Evangelicals also supported the mosque with an amicus brief.
The settlement agreements Tuesday resulted from lawsuits filed against Bernards Township last year by the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge and the U.S. Department of Justice.
The Islamic organization had purchased a four-acre plot of land for the mosque in 2011, according to the Washington Post. But in 2013, the township changed its zoning ordinance, raising its minimum acreage for houses of worship to six acres. The township also said the mosque wouldn’t have enough parking spaces to accommodate its worship schedule, especially for Friday afternoon prayers drawing people arriving separately from work.
The lawsuits said the requirements placed an undue burden on the Islamic Society and that the group was being unfairly targeted because of its religion. A federal judge ruled in December that the parking spaces requirement was discriminatory. The township had been considering an appeal but last week decided to settle because of concerns about insurance coverage.
The $3.25 million is for damages and attorney fees. In addition to also submitting to diversity training, the township must amend its zoning ordinance to place fewer restrictions on places of worship. The Islamic Society has agreed to limit the mosque’s occupancy to 150 and not to amplify the Muslim call to prayer.
“Municipalities around the country should pay close attention to what happened in Bernards Township,” Adeel A. Mangi, lead counsel for the mosque, told the news site My Central Jersey. “The American Muslim community has the legal resources, the allies and the determination to stand up for its constitutional rights in court and will do so.”
Southern Baptists upset with the IMB and ERLC for filing amicus briefs said Baptists shouldn’t be expected to actively support the building of mosques in the name of religious freedom. David Platt, head of the IMB, later apologized and said the IMB going forward would focus on its primary mission of Christian evangelism and discipleship.
Russell Moore, head of the ERLC, was confronted with the issue at last year’s annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis, Missouri, in June. From the convention floor, an Arkansas pastor asked Moore why Baptists should support the building of mosques when Muslims are killing and imprisoning Christians around the world and Baptists believe Islam goes against the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Moore responded sharply that Baptists should support “soul freedom for everybody.” His response was greeted with applause and in the following days other Baptist leaders praised his remarks. However, some Southern Baptists said Moore’s answer was condescending and ignored the supremacist nature of Islam and failed to address the heart of the pastor’s question about whether Christians should actively champion the spread of religions Baptists consider to be false ones.
Here is the entirety of the comments of both men.
John Wofford, pastor of Armorel Baptist Church in Blytheville, Arkansas:
I would like to know how in the world someone within the Southern Baptist Convention can support the defending of rights for Muslims to construct mosques in the United States when these people threaten our very way of existence as Christians and Americans. They are murdering Christians, beheading Christians, imprisoning Christians all over the world. Do you actually believe that if Jesus Christ were here today that he would support this and that he would stand up and say, ‘Well let us protect the rights of those Baal worshippers to erect temples to Baal?’ Do you believe that, Dr. Moore?”
You know, sometimes we have to deal with questions that are really complicated and we have to spend a lot of time thinking them through and not sure exactly what the final result was going to be. Sometimes we have really hard decisions to make. This isn’t one of those things. What it means to be a Baptist is to support soul freedom for everybody. And brothers and sisters, when you have a government that says, ‘We can decide whether or not a house of worship can be constructed based upon the theological beliefs of that house of worship,’ then there are going to be Southern Baptist churches in San Francisco and New York and throughout this country who are not going to be able to build. And the bigger issue, though, is not one of self-interest. The bigger issue is the fact that we have been called to the gospel of Jesus Christ. A government that has the power to outlaw people from assembling together and saying what they believe – that does not turn people into Christians, that turns people into pretend Christians and it sends them straight to hell. The answer to Islam is not government power. The answer is the gospel of Jesus Christ and the new birth that comes from that.
Wofford later wrote a letter to the editor of Arkansas Baptist News in which he clarified that he believes the U.S. Constitution protects freedom of religion and that his question was primarily a spiritual one.
Moore has been a controversial figure among Southern Baptists and some churches began to escrow funds that support the ERLC because of concerns about the friend-of-the-court brief, as well as other positions taken by the ERLC that some say are too progressive for the conservative denomination, including Moore’s harsh criticism of supporters of President Trump during last year’s campaign season.
The Southern Baptist Convention will hold its annual meeting this year June 13-14 in Phoenix, Arizona.