A Superior Court judge has ruled that Khalilah Shabazz, the “mother of the mosque,” can seek monetary damages from the board of trustees, which allegedly sold the Branford Masjid in a “clandestine” deal.
The Branford Masjid, considered to be the oldest mosque in downtown Newark, has been located for the past 40 years inside the century-old Chamber of Commerce building on Branford Place. In 1982, Saudi philanthropist, Ali Habeeb Maghrabi, endowed the building to Newark’s Muslim community, placing it in an irrevocable trust.
The controversial sale of the building to Paramount Assets last year pitted the Islamic Society of Essex County (ISEC) board of trustees against prayer goers, who claim they were never notified of the sale as the bylaws require.
“There have been people praying on the sidewalk of that mosque. There have been protests weekly,” said Shabazz’s attorney Eric Warner. “They knew full well this was not going to go over well and yet they did it anyway. It speaks fraud and graft and intentional bad faith.”
“That the board did anything untoward is belied by the procedural history here,” said Deanna Koestal, defense attorney for ISEC. “They waited to sell the building until plaintiffs had the opportunity, not just to go to the appellate division, but to go to the Supreme Court as well, to get a ruling on their application for an emergent application to stop the sale.”
Presiding Judge Jodi Lee Alper, who denied a preliminary injunction six months ago that could have temporarily prevented the sale of the mosque, still encouraged the parties to settle the dispute out of court.
“This is an unfortunate situation where a community is being torn apart,” said Judge Alper, “and I understand that heated words are said and hopefully not meant.”
The case, if it goes to trial, will ultimately be decided on two issues. The first involves an unsigned draft of the 2005 bylaws and whether the board will be beholden to those terms. The other concerns an interpretation of the statutes that govern religious societies — Title 15a and Title 16 — and whether ISEC was incorporated as a so-called non-member organization. Only a member could lay claim to the irrevocable trust and have the legal standing to seek damages.
“The 2005 draft bylaws that the plaintiffs rely upon,” Koestal said, “those have no merit. But even if the court were to consider that document — even that document they rely on so heavily — says that ISEC is a non-member corporation.”
Hearing the board tell the court that Branford Masjid has no members has infuriated long-standing mosque-goers, many of whom have prayed there and donated money over the past four decades.
“They refused to open the door and let people go upstairs to pray,” Shabazz said to Jersey Digs in December. “That’s another way of showing the judge nobody comes there.”
Since selling the Chamber of Commerce building, which Koestal called a “dilapidated, 100-year-old building that it could no longer afford to maintain,” ISEC has moved to a nearby location on Hill Street. A mosque and a charter school have since opened at the new location and there are plans to expand educational services to summer school and after-school programs.
“The plaintiff has not come forth with any evidence whatsoever to raise a genuine issue to dispute that this nonprofit corporation has no members,” Koestal said. “We submit it’s because they know there are no merits to their case.”
However, Shabazz’s legal representation pushed back with the accusation that “documents are being held so tightly” by the board of trustees.
“We don’t have certificates of membership,” Warner said. “Why? Because discovery hasn’t even started yet. And when it does, I have no doubt that that is regrettably going to be as difficult as it was in preliminary discovery, to get documents out of the board.”