In what could be a significant test of President Donald Trump's relationship with a religious minority he antagonized on the campaign trial, WNYC has learned the U.S. Justice Department is investigating whether a New Jersey town discriminated against local Muslims by denying their application to construct a mosque, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Jersey.
The town of Bayonne, across from Staten Island, rejected a proposal to convert a warehouse into a mosque, citing concerns about parking and buffer zones to adjacent properties. While Bayonne planning board members never uttered a discriminatory word in public, residents circulated anti-mosque fliers referencing September 11th, and meetings about the project were marked by local residents weighing in on the legitimacy of Islam itself, with readings of violent passages from the Koran. Last week, the Bayonne Muslims, who have been praying in the basement of a church because there is no local mosque, sued the city and planning board members, alleging that discrimination led to the rejection of their proposal.
During the Obama administration, such lawsuits were often followed by federal investigations into possible violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which prohibits discriminating against religious groups through the use of zoning laws. Just last week, Bernards Township, in central New Jersey, settled lawsuits filed against it by both the Justice Department and local Muslims for rejecting a plan for a new mosque. The town must pay $1.5 million in damages and another $1.75 million in legal fees to local Muslims. Their attorney, Adeel Mangi, said the money will be donated to charity. Town officials also must undergo training about discrimination. And the mosque will be constructed.
Legal experts had doubted the Justice Department under Trump — who famously campaigned on the argument that "Islam hates us" — would pursue matters involving discrimination against Muslims as aggressively as federal prosecutors had under the prior administration.
The existence of a Bayonne investigation indicates otherwise, at least for now. Matthew Reilly, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Jersey, confirmed the investigation on Tuesday afternoon.
William Fitzpatrick, Acting U.S. Attorney in New Jersey, will oversee the investigation. He's a holdover from the Obama administration. Trump is expected to appoint his own U.S. Attorney, who could opt to continue or scuttle any probe.