ANN ARBOR, MI —The Thomas More Law Center (“TMLC”), a national public interest law firm based in Ann Arbor, MI, announced that yesterday afternoon its affiliated New Jersey attorney, Mr. Michael Hrycak, filed a lawsuit against Bernards Township in New Jersey to void a secret deal by Township officials to allow the construction of a mosque by the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge. The lawsuit was filed in the Superior Court of New Jersey, on behalf of Township resident Cody Smith.
The lawsuit alleges that various governmental entities of Bernards Township violated the New Jersey Open Public Meetings Act (the so-called Sunshine Law) when they entered into settlements with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge (Islamic Society). The Islamic Society and the DOJ had filed lawsuits in federal court alleging that the Township had discriminated against the Islamic Society when it declined to approve the construction of a large mosque on a lot that was far too small to handle the contemplated structure. However, the Township agreed to settle the cases without ever disclosing to the public the terms of those agreements. New Jersey courts have routinely held that the New Jersey Sunshine Law requires that the terms of proposed settlement agreements in land use lawsuits be disclosed to the public and open for public comment before any settlement is reached.
Prior to filing his lawsuit, Cody Smith made several attempts, both in writing and verbally at public meetings, to have the Township reveal the proposed terms of the settlements. The Township steadfastly refused, indicating it would not reveal the terms until the settlements were finalized.
Richard Thompson, President and Chief Counsel of TMLC, observed, “There must be transparency in government. The attempt to shroud these settlements in secrecy is outrageous. Citizens have a right to know what agreements their elected officials are considering making in their names. Furthermore, these citizens have a right to have their public objections heard by their elected representatives before any vote is taken on a settlement.”
TMLC represents several Bernards Township residents who were served with intrusive and harassing subpoenas by Islamic Society attorneys. Their only involvement was to make comments at a public Township hearing. They were non-parties to the lawsuit, had never had an official role in the Township and had no authority to deny the Islamic Society’s permit request. Nonetheless, the subpoenas demanded the production of emails, voicemails, text messages, and social media posts concerning Muslims, Islam, or anything to do with Muslim worship. The subpoenas clearly infringed upon their First Amendment rights to free speech and freedom of association. The only purpose of the subpoenas was to punish residents who dared to oppose the Islamic Society’s request.