This blog has previously written about the decision by the Bensalem Township’s to deny a zoning permit for a new mosque. In July 2016, the United States Justice Department sued the township alleging that the zoning board‘s denial of an application for a variance was based upon religious discrimination. In important ruling, the judge who is presiding over the lawsuit issued an order denying the township’s motion to dismiss the suit.
The case began when Bensalem Masjid, a non-profit Muslim organization based in Bensalem, announced plans to build a mosque in the township to save its members from driving to mosques in other municipalities. According to the Bensalem zoning ordinance, buildings intended for use by a religious institution must be built in areas of the town zoned as “industrial.” If a church or other group wishes to build in an area not zoned industrial, it must obtain a variance from the township zoning board.
After a five-year search for a suitable site within the industrial district, the Bensalem Masjid applied for a variance so that it could build it mosque in an area zoned residential. The township zoning board held six hearings over several months before finally voting 4-0 to deny the variance requests. The Justice Department sued the township, alleging that the denial was based upon improper religious discrimination, citing other variance applications by non-Islamic religious groups that had been granted. The township filed a motion to dismiss the suit on several procedural grounds, but the judge denied all motions. The case will now proceed to trial unless the parties reach a settlement.
Land use disputes similar to the controversy surrounding the Bensalem mosque are likely to become more common. Anyone involved in such a dispute may wish to consult an attorney who is experienced in zoning and land use litigation. Such a consultation can provide a useful evaluation of the facts and law of the case and suggestions for helpful legal strategies.
Source: Philly Voice, “Fight to build mosque in Bensalem will continue, federal judge rules,” John Kopp, Nov. 16, 2016