Ray Hassan’s mother had a final wish as she was battling cancer – to start a free school. The AUCC as born out of that idea.
A proposed Islamic community center has filed a discrimination lawsuit in federal court against Teaneck and its zoning board, claiming the township blocked its application by imposing oppressive requirements and draining the developer’s pockets.
The Al Ummah Community Center, or AUCC, bought the former Longfellow School on Oakdene Avenue for $4.3 million in 2018. The township had sold the 110-year-old brick building in 2003 to a church, which also used the site as a day care center.
But after years of fraught proceedings, the zoning board denied the AUCC’s application on Oct. 1.
In the suit, the AUCC claims the township and its board was against the proposal from the start, discriminating against its use as an Islamic center and mosque.
“The […] process was a sham aimed at delaying and denying the application and bleeding Plaintiffs, a nonprofit, of precious funds,” the suit argues.
The AUCC claims the township first asked that it use initials, rather than the center’s full name, to downplay its Muslim purpose, and then insisted the application go before the zoning board, despite the site’s location in a “Public Zone,” which the suit claims lacks restrictions on use, size and density.
At the core of the AUCC complaint is the argument that none of the requirements placed on the application was asked of the church that operated on the same site and in the same building for years.
The application did not include any additions to the building the church and school had used, according to AUCC attorney Aymen Aboushi.
But board members continued to increase the amount of parking required on site, which already included a lot of 63 spaces, eventually requiring the proposed mosque to build nearly 300 parking spaces on its property, the suit claims.
Meanwhile, the application garnered its fair share of detractors from the neighborhood, with many fearing the center would generate light, noise and traffic.
The AUCC on Oakdene Avenue in Teaneck. (Photo: Megan Burrow/NorthJersey.com)
Even the building’s new blue and yellow paint job was at issue.
“It’s like living next to an Ikea,” Marilyn Figueroa, who lives across the street, said last year.
But some of the suit’s claims are at odds with statements from Ray Hassan, the president of the Al Ummah Community Center.
For one, the lawsuit repeatedly refers to the proposed building as an Islamic center, whereas previous reports from the USA TODAY Atlantic Group consistently refer to the building’s intended use as a day care and community center that would hold “interfaith prayer.”
Even Hassan was quoted last year saying, “They’re painting this really ugly picture of us. People have this belief we’re a Muslim organization and we’re only going to be serving our people. That’s just not true.”
Conversely, the suit goes so far as to refer to the proposed building as a mosque.
And while previous reports suggest the application was for a community center, the suit now claims the township urged him to include costly and general amenities, such as a swimming pool for use by the township and the high school, which the AUCC obliged.
Board members also riddled the AUCC with endless questions as to the frequency of religious services to be held in the building, he claims. Something that was not at issue when his building was a church, according to the lawsuit.
All this, the suit states, were attempts by the township to secularize his proposal so that religious discrimination could not be claimed as it slowly quashed his application.
The suit charges that the board “continued to purposefully misconstrue the site as a recreational and a community facility, rather than the Religious Community Center it is,” going on to claim “the defendants believed they could usurp the guaranteed religious protections [the] plaintiffs are entitled to.”
Aboushi said his client has always referred to the proposed building as an Islamic center.
Hassan sought to build the facility in remembrance of his mother, who ran day care centers in New Jersey and New York before she died in 2017.
He said he used nearly $10 million of his inheritance to get the center up and running and meet the township’s demands, including placing $35,000 in escrow, which he alleges the township used to hire professionals to argue against his application and then requested another $25,000.
Hassan seeks damages, as well as attorney fees and the approval of his application.
Teaneck Mayor James Dunleavy stated on Friday that the township had no comment, as they had not been alerted to the suit and had not retained legal counsel.
In 2019, then Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin, who was the first Muslin mayor in Bergen County, said the center would offer welcome services for the community. “The fact that an organization wants to come in and provide services for the community, that’s a net benefit for the town,” he said.
Nicholas Katzban is a breaking news reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to all the major news happening in North Jersey, subscribe here. To get breaking news directly to your inbox, sign up for our newsletter.
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