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.
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.
Norgalis said the council was not targeting the mosque, just making an overdue adjustment in passing the ordinance. Bridgewater is home also to a handful of Christian churches, a Jewish synagogue, a Sikh temple, and a Hindu temple. The Hindu temple clashed with the zoning board for five years until it scaled down its expansion plans. Episcopalians in town were not as persistent, and they abandoned expansion plans after the zoning board resisted.
Christian Bridgewater leaders have differing perspectives about Al Falah but haven't formally opposed it. Tim Locke, pastor at Grace Community Church, said diversity is an opportunity. "God is bringing the Arabs to us to evangelize them," he said. "I'm not opposed to sharing my neighborhood with them."
Elliott Tepperman, a Bridgewater resident and rabbi acting as spokesman for Jewish Voice for Peace, wrote on the group's website: "Our religious community has living memory of being mistreated for our differences, and we believe that we have an obligation to speak out against such mistreatment of others. . . . The verse most often repeated in Torah is 'Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.'"
Stephen Eisdorfer, a lawyer representing neighborhood homeowners, specializes in land use issues. He said Bridgewater operated correctly on new legislation passed by Gov. Chris Christie, which takes effect May 5 and prohibits changes to zoning ordinances if they affect previously submitted applications. Eisdorfer has represented houses of worship including Hindu and Buddhist temples, synagogues, and Baptist churches. "The issues are always the same: noise, visual impact, and traffic," said Eisdorfer. "Everybody wants to go to church, but nobody wants it next door."
James Yee, Executive Director of the New Jersey Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), questioned the timing of the council's passing a new ordinance. "Basically, what [the town council] did would be illegal soon," said Yee. He said he sensed animosity toward Muslims when an estimated 700 residents showed up for the town council vote.
But Jim Lefkowitz, founder of the Somerset County Tea Party, believes there are good reasons to question the motives of CAIR and Al Falah. In 1997, CAIR was named an unindicted co-conspirator when the Holy Land Foundation was convicted of supporting Hamas and other terrorist organizations with $12 million.
"Build as many mosques as you want, but I'm going to ask questions and not apologize," said Lefkowitz. He said terrorists had affiliations with mosques in New York, and he and others want to know more about Al Falah's funding sources: "Where is the money coming from?"
The Chughtai Foundation, with assets totaling $1.5 million as of its 2009 IRS form 990 filing, is contract owner of the property. Pat Kelly, Sales Associate with Re/Max Realty, who represents the property owner, says the closing of the sale depends upon approval from the township. If it closes, the foundation will essentially donate the property to Al Falah. Meanwhile, deposit for the transaction is held in escrow. Kelly would not comment on the negotiated price, but the property is listed at $2.4 million.
The foundation shares a post office box in the next town with Equity Packaging Inc. Zahid Chughatta, a native of India who also uses Chughtai as a last name, is the foundation's president and earned his master's in industrial engineering at Rutgers University. In 1991 Chughatta founded Equity Packaging, which specializes in packaging for pharmaceuticals, food, and medical devices. Its website says it operates internationally in Europe, Asia, and South America.
Chughatta, a board member of Al Falah, is also No. 1,614 on a petition for Sami Al-Arian's release. Al-Arian is a Palestinian born in Kuwait and former Florida professor who pleaded guilty and was convicted in federal court of conspiring with the Palestine Islamic Jihad, which has supported suicide bombers in Israel. Chughatta's foundation has donated over $20,000 to CAIR. Chughatta did not return requests for comment on this story.
Al Falah is suing Bridgewater township, Norgalis, the mayor, every member of the town council, and the planning board. The lawsuit names 10 counts under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). In the filing, defense lawyers allege the township has "deprived Plantiffs of their right of free exercise of religion, discriminating against them on the basis of religion." They also claim $200,000 has been spent planning for the Al Falah mosque. Court documents show Al Falah is also supported by the mega law firm Arnold & Porter, the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice, and the Asian-American Legal Defense Fund.
"The RLUIPA is itself ambiguous," said Eisdorfer. "The law was written that way, so Congress was not setting the standard. That's up to the courts to decide." RLUIPA was passed in 2000 with Republican sponsorship and bipartisan support to raise the bar for any government action that would impose zoning or other restrictions on a religious institution or limit the religious freedom of prisoners. Such action must serve a "compelling government interest" while also being "the least restrictive means" of furthering that interest, the law reads. While offering protection to religious institutions and property, RLUIPA now is increasingly being used to litigate in favor of mosque construction sites with questionable funding sources.
-Elbert Chu is a multimedia journalist in New York City and co-founder of RedeemtheCity.com