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Zoned out

Religion | A proposed mosque in New Jersey heats up the debate over local restrictions and religious freedom

Issue: "After Osama," May 21, 2011

Howard Norgalis normally puts out fires in his hometown of Bridgewater, N.J. But now, like other local officials in America, he has a political fire on his hands over whether a proposed mosque should be built in his community.

The Bridgewater town council president and fire commissioner has been a councilman for seven years and a firefighter for 35. The most flammable issue in his neighborhood right now is the proposed Al Falah mosque.

A new ordinance restricts "country clubs, open air clubs, houses of worship, and schools" to major roadways-prompting the town council to reject the Al Falah proposal in March. Al Falah members responded last month, suing the town and individuals involved in the case under a federal statute on April 26. But even as sides in the debate emerge more clearly, questions over who's behind the Al Falah project-as with other new mosques around the country-are growing.

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The ordinance, unanimously approved by the town council, doused the Al Falah fire with gasoline. "It's getting ugly. I'm used to getting sued by people upset with township decisions, just not in federal court," said Norgalis. The township's attorney, Norgalis said, believes the case "might be dismissed outright."

Like Bridgewater, many localities around the United States are wrestling with mosque zoning as mosque proposals increase. And officials like Norgalis have to decide how to accommodate an increasing population of Muslim Americans as communities weigh city planning, freedom of religion, and worries about the influence of radical Islam.

Bridgewater in northern New Jersey's Somerset County is home to an upscale mall and a median household income of $103,227-fourth-highest in the nation. Usually sleepy town council meetings suddenly have become packed. The first hearing for the mosque swelled the municipal room beyond fire capacity and was postponed and moved to a high-school auditorium.

"Both sides are using this issue as symbolic weapons to bash each other," said David Roozen, Director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Connecticut. He says that tensions intensify with Middle East strife and high unemployment rates, and that "economic stress is very real. Immigrants get blamed."

There are 1,897 mosques in America, up 57 percent from 1,209 mosques in 2000, according to Ihsan Bagby, associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky. The 2.6 million Muslims in America now are expected to jump to 6.2 million by 2030, according to research from the Pew Research Center and John Templeton Foundation. But Bagby estimates there are 6 million Muslims in the United States already because youth, prisons, and low-income areas are undercounted. If Bagby is correct, Muslims will soon outnumber Jews in the United States.

Explosive growth, religious tension, and fears of terrorism increase the friction. Not every mosque faces opposition, but the Pew Forum counts 35 proposed mosques nationwide that faced community resistance from 2008 through 2010.

Voters in Oklahoma, with less than 1 percent Muslim population, made moves to ban Shariah law, a strict interpretation of the Quran. And similar efforts are underway in Tennessee, Texas, Alaska, and Louisiana. The most notorious mosque zoning case, the Park51 mosque in Lower Manhattan near Ground Zero, is stalled by appeals for historic preservation of the original building. And plaintiffs in April joined a lawsuit against county commissioners who approved a Murfreesboro, Tenn., mosque next door to a Baptist church.

Researcher Roozen said studies show most Muslims in the United States want to be mainstream Americans and say they largely agree with separation of church and state. There are enough examples of American Muslim extremists, however, to stoke resistance to prominent buildings dedicated to Islam. So communities nationwide grapple with how to be good neighbors who promote religious freedom yet exercise caution.

Bridgewater, population 45,000, has provoked the ire of Muslims and freedom of religion supporters. "Neighbors were passionate," said Norgalis. And so were mosque supporters, many from outside Bridgewater. Besides three hours of heated public debate, Norgalis said, "I have 1,606 emails in my inbox from Change.org." He received notes also from Virginia, California, Spain, and Portugal.

At issue is a 15,500-square-foot facility, roughly the size of an average retail (think Gap) store, on 7.6 acres of forested land. Across the road are white picket fences. The property was once a banquet hall on a curved road with no shoulder or sidewalk, and the town considered making it a park. But Norgalis said it's "not suitable because it's on a hill," roughly two miles from a main road and "hard to access." The council believes religious services would create too much congestion around that property.

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