The Justice Department is taking a Pennsylvania town to court over a municipal board’s denial of a zoning application for a mosque, accusing officials of discriminating against a local Muslim organization on the basis of religion.
The Bensalem Township violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act when its zoning board in 2014 rejected a zoning request that would have allowed the Bensalem Masjid to build a mosque in the town, Justice Department attorneys wrote in a complaint filed Thursday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
“Our Constitution protects the rights of religious communities to build places of worship free from unlawful interference and unnecessary barriers,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “The Department of Justice will continue to challenge unjustified local zoning actions around the country when they encroach upon this important civil right.”
Members of the local Muslim community sought to build a mosque after years of renting a local fire hall for worship services. In 2012, the Bensalem Masjid organization met with elected officials to discuss options for building a 17,000-square-foot mosque on land adjacent to the township.
But as plans moved forward and the group attended a series of meetings before the Bensalem Township Zoning Hearing Board, the complaint alleges that Bensalem Masjid was treated differently than other religious and non-religious groups that had sought similar zoning variances. The board, which ultimately rejected the application in a 4-0 vote, treated other groups “more favorably than it treated the Bensalem’s Masjid’s application throughout the variance process.”
Specifically the complaint alleges that in other instances the board required only one hearing to make a zoning variance application while there were six hearings conducted as part of the Bensalem Masjid’s application.
“As another example, the Board asked questions of the Bensalem Masjid that it did not ask of many of these other applicants, including whether its membership would increase and whether it would attract members from outside of Bensalem Township,” the complaint states.
No Bensalem Township officials could immediately reached for comment on the Justice Department’s civil rights lawsuit.
The Philadelphia Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations previously filed a federal lawsuit against the township alleging the rejection of the zoning approval for the mosque violated constitutional protections for freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and equal treatment. That lawsuit is still active in federal court and is scheduled for trial next year.