On July 21, 2016, the Department of Justice has filed a complaint against Bensalem Township for allegedly giving a proposed mosque harsher zoning treatment than similar institutions.  The claims arise under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA).  42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc–2000cc-5.  RLUIPA prohibits a government from imposing burdensome zoning restrictions on religious groups.

At issue in this dispute is a Bensalem non-profit Muslim organization’s attempts to find suitable property to build a mosque.  The group, the Bensalem Masjid, found such a property and entered into a lease with an option to purchase three adjoining lots located on Hulmeville Road.  The total area of the lots is approximately 4.5 acres.  Nearly 3 acres is zoned in the Business and Professional District, while two other parcels are zoned residential.  Religious institutions are not permitted in any of the relevant zoning districts.  However, non-religious assembly uses are permitted in all of them.

According to the complaint, the Bensalem Masjid consulted with the township’s mayor when deciding whether to build a mosque on this property.  The mayor expressed a preference for this site because it was close to commercial uses.  As a result of these conversations, the Bensalem Masjid applied to the township planning commission to use the property for religious assembly.  Bensalem’s engineer denied the request on the ground that a mosque is a non-permitted use in the area.  The Bensalem Masjid subsequently applied to the zoning hearing board for a use variance.  After several hearings, the use variance application was denied.

The Department of Justice alleges that Bensalem has treated similarly situated use variance applications for religious and non-religious assemblies more favorably in the past, even though the Bensalem Masjid provided equal evidence to show it met the variance requirements.  The complaint claims that (1) the denial imposes a substantial burden on the Bensalem Masjid’s religious exercise, (2) Bensalem treated the Bensalem Masjid unequally compared to similarly situated groups, (3) the denial amounts to religious discrimination, and (4) Bensalem has placed unreasonable limitations on religious assemblies.

Click here to read: United States v. Bensalem Twp., Civil Action No. 16-3938 (E.D. Pa. July 21, 2016).

Edited by:

Bob Turchick, Law Clerk