January 31, 2018 / 11:24 PM / 10 months ago

New Jersey city to pay $400,000 in settlement allowing mosque to proceed

(Reuters) - The New Jersey city of Bayonne has agreed to a $400,000 settlement with a local Muslim group that will allow a planned mosque to proceed, ending a lawsuit that accused officials of illegally rejecting the zoning application.

“It is in the best interest of our city that we settle this case,” Mayor Jimmy Davis said in a statement. “That we permit members of our community to have a place to gather and worship is the right thing. That we afford all residents the same opportunities is essential.”

The Bayonne Muslims filed a federal lawsuit last year after their application to establish a permanent home was rejected by the city’s zoning board, claiming the decision violated a U.S. law that prohibits local governments from imposing an undue burden on religious exercise through land use regulations.

The agreement calls for a public hearing within 30 days to approve the mosque.

“We are so grateful for the support of so many of our fellow Bayonne residents through this long struggle and we commend the city of Bayonne for moving now to correct the wrong that was done to Bayonne’s Muslims,” said the president of Bayonne Muslims, Abdul Hamid Butt.

The settlement does not affect a probe opened by the U.S. Department of Justice last year into the case. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in New Jersey, which launched the investigation, declined to comment on its status.

In recent years, the Justice Department has settled lawsuits against numerous localities for denying mosque applications, including Bernards Township, New Jersey; Bensalem, Pennsylvania; and Des Plaines, Illinois.

A similar Justice Department lawsuit against Culpeper County, Virginia, was dismissed as moot by a federal judge after the county agreed to allow the mosque to be built.

Reporting by Joseph Ax in New York; Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Leslie Adler

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