By Joseph Ax


(Reuters) - The U.S. government sued a New Jersey town on Tuesday, saying that it discriminated against Muslims when it rejected an Islamic group's plan to build a mosque there.


The lawsuit in federal court in Newark, New Jersey, said planning officials in Bernards Township deliberately set out impossibly strict requirements that the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge was unable to meet, after members of the public objected based on religious bias.


"The reasons set forth by the Planning Board for denying the site plan application were pretextual, and the Planning Board in fact denied the application based on discrimination toward Muslims," the U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit said.


The Islamic Society, which rents space in a community center for prayer services, had previously filed its own discrimination lawsuit against the town in March, following a four-year battle with the planning board. That complaint has drawn supporting court filings from civil rights organizations.


A lawyer for the town, located about 30 miles (48 km) west of New York City, declined to comment on Tuesday, saying he had not read the Justice Department's lawsuit. The town's administrator could not immediately be reached for comment.

The Justice Department's allegations coincide with an increase in hate crimes, particularly against Muslims, following a divisive presidential campaign. Federal hate crime laws increase the penalties for criminal behavior that is motivated by bias against the victim based on race, religion, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or other protected classifications.

Both lawsuits rely on a federal law barring land use regulations that place an undue burden on the right to freely exercise one's religion.

The Islamic Society bought a four-acre plot in 2011 and filed its plans for a mosque in 2012. Over the next 3 -1/2 years, the planning board held 39 separate hearings, far more than for any other proposal, the department said.

The mosque's architect endeavored to create a building that would comport with the surrounding residential neighborhood, forgoing the traditional dome and fashioning minarets to look like small chimneys, the lawsuit said.

But the plan drew vociferous opposition from a number of residents, the lawsuit said. The mosque's mailbox was vandalized, with the letters ISBR changed to ISIS, in a reference to Islamic State, the group whose followers have carried out shootings and bombings of civilians around the world.

The planning board repeatedly demanded changes in the plans, only to meet each proposed fix with a new requirement, the lawsuit said.

The Justice Department in July sued Bensalem, Pennsylvania, for denying zoning approval to a proposed mosque.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone and Grant McCool)