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Bensalem Masjid v. Bensalem Township, PA

11/15/2016: Media reports on favorable court decision in the Bensalem Masjid's lawsuit against Bensalem Township, Pa.

A Muslim group claiming that Bensalem Township impeded on its religious liberty by denying the group permission to build a mosque can move forward with its lawsuit against the township.

P.J. D'Annunzio, "Pa. Township Loses Bid to Stop Mosque-Building Case," The Legal Intelligencer (Nov. 15, 2016).  The U.S. Department of Justice's Complaint is available here

This summer, the Department of Justice filed a religious land-use discrimination suit against Bensalem Township after township officials turned down a mosque's application for a zoning variance.  This week, a judge tossed out the township's request to have the case dismissed.  "We believe the facts support our view of the case, and a judge has rejected their arguments twice," said Roman Storzer, a lawyer for Bensalem Masjid who represented the group in an earlier and ongoing civil suit.

L. Benshoff, "Fight continues over construction of mosque in Bensalem," Newsworks (Nov. 17, 2016). 

The Department of Justice lawsuit against Bensalem Township over the construction of a mosque is moving forward after a federal judge refused to toss the case.  In a 12 page opinion, District Judge Michael M. Baylson ruled that the DOJ alleged enough to take the case one step closer to trial.  “The township is certainly disappointed, said solicitor Joseph Pizzo, “but the denial of the motion to dismiss is not totally unexpected.”

C. Gregg, "Discrimination Suit Against Bucks County Town Over Construction Of Mosque Moves Forward," CBS Philly (Nov. 16, 2016).  The court rejected the Township's arguments that the Masjid had to seek rezoning of its property, holding:

The cases that Defendant cites involve plaintiffs that show a refusal to engage with the administrative process, and then go on to bring a RLUIPA challenge. That is not what happened here. According to the United States’ Complaint, the Bensalem Masjid fully engaged with the administrative process to obtain zoning relief and build their mosque, undergoing extensive questioning at several rounds of administrative hearings. Further, the United States alleges that seeking a use variance was a proper procedure for obtaining relief under the Bensalem Code, and that the Bensalem Masjid was told to use that procedure after discussions with Township officials.

The court's decision is available at 2016 WL 6695511.

 

 

08/07/2016: New York Times reports on Bensalem Masjid's RLUIPA suit

For nearly 10 months, a Muslim congregation in the Philadelphia suburb of Bensalem, Pa., pleaded with township officials to allow the construction of a mosque, paying for expensive traffic studies, repeatedly explaining Islamic practices, revising and re-revising design plans, and then receiving the final word: No.  Then last month, the Justice Department stepped in, charging that the Bensalem Township zoning hearing board had violated federal religious land-use laws by denying the congregation’s application after it had granted zoning exemptions for other religious construction projects. . . .

[W]hen the Bensalem Masjid congregation applied for the same type of variance, it did not get one. The congregation’s request was officially denied because zoning hearing board members said they thought the mosque should ask for the property to be officially rezoned — a long, difficult process that other religious groups had not been asked to undertake. Along the way, the board members pressed for traffic studies and demanded more parking spots in the congregation’s plans. The official complaint against the township charges that such concerns were veiled discrimination.

“They were scrutinized much more rigorously,” said Roman Storzer, a lawyer representing the Bensalem Masjid. “Then they were denied, and denied in a way that all other houses of worship had been approved.”

K. Shepherd, "Township Saw a Zoning Issue. The Justice Dept. Saw Religious Discrimination," New York Times (Aug. 7, 2016)

The U.S. Justice Department also recently filed suit against Bensalem Township:

Bensalem Township has temples, synagogues, and churches, but in 2014 Bucks County's largest municipality declined to grant a permit for a mosque. That, said the U.S. Justice Department in a suit filed Thursday, constituted religious discrimination.  The suit seeks to have the township give the Bensalem Masjid approval to build the mosque, provide training for township employees regarding religious land-use laws, and pay unspecified damages. The Bensalem Masjid has been embroiled in litigation with the township since 2014. It first began looking for a place to build a mosque in 2008.  The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, "demonstrates the seriousness of the problem in Bensalem Township," said Roman Storzer, the Masjid's lead attorney in a federal lawsuit filed against the township.

J. McDaniel, "Justice Department: Bensalem discriminates against Muslims," Philadelphia Inquirer (July 22, 2016).

07/22/2016: United States Department of Justice files lawsuit against Bensalem Township

S&A previously filed suit against the Township in 2014, challenging Bensalem's zoning scheme regulating religious institutions and the denial of its client's mosque application.

Bensalem Township has temples, synagogues, and churches, but in 2014 Bucks County's largest municipality declined to grant a permit for a mosque. That, said the U.S. Justice Department in a suit filed Thursday, constituted religious discrimination.  The suit seeks to have the township give the Bensalem Masjid approval to build the mosque, provide training for township employees regarding religious land-use laws, and pay unspecified damages. The Bensalem Masjid has been embroiled in litigation with the township since 2014. It first began looking for a place to build a mosque in 2008.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, "demonstrates the seriousness of the problem in Bensalem Township," said Roman Storzer, the Masjid's lead attorney in a federal lawsuit filed against the township.

J. McDaniel, "Justice Department: Bensalem discriminates against Muslims," Philadelphia Inquirer (July 22, 2016).

“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.”

"Justice Department Files Suit Against Bensalem Township, Pennsylvania, Over Denial of Zoning Approval for Mosque," Press Release, United States Department of Justice (July 21, 2016).

J. Gershman, "Obama Administration Sues Pennsylvania Town for Rejecting Mosque Plan," Wall Street Journal (July 22, 2016).

Read the DOJ's Complaint here.

09/25/2015: Catholic News reports on Bensalem, Pa. decision

"Mosque can proceed with RLUIPA challenge to denial of use variance," Catholic News Live (Sept. 25, 2015)

09/23/2015: Federal court rules against Bensalem, Pa. in RLUIPA case challenging denial of use variance

In rejecting the Township's argument that a house of worship must petition for rezoning before it can file a RLUIPA action, the court noted that "Defendants do not cite any case from any jurisdiction holding that the failure to apply for rezoning prevents review of a denial of a use variance."  The court also rejected nearly all of the Township's arguments that the Bensalem Masjid's Complaint failed to state various claims under RLUIPA, the federal Constitution, and the Pennsylvania Religious Freedom Protection Act.  The Masjid is represented by S&G, together with Pennsylvania counsel Ryan Houldin.  The decision is available here.  An analysis of the decision is available here.

12/10/2014: Philadelphia Magazine article on Bensalem litigation

Philadelphia Magazine reports on S&G client Bensalem Masjid's lawsuit against Bensalem Township, Pa.

Bensalem has its fair share of churches and other houses of worship. The Bucks County township of 60,000 has Catholic churches, Protestant churches, synagogues, a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, and a Buddhist Temple. And there are two Hindu temples under development. But if you’re a Bensalem Muslim, you’re out of luck, because Bensalem doesn’t have a mosque. Instead, local Muslims meet once a week for Friday prayers inside a rented fire hall. The Bensalem Masjid, a religious organization with some 200 families in its congregation, wants to change that but says that Bensalem Township and its Zoning Hearing Board haven’t exactly rolled out the red carpet for its proposed mosque (rendering above) on the 3800 block of Hulmeville Road, which has several other houses of worship within a one-mile radius. And now the group has filed a lawsuit (below) against the township and the board in federal court.

The comments to the article speak not-so-eloquently to the need for RLUIPA.

V. Fiorillo, "Bensalem Muslims Say Township Won't Let Them Build a Mosque," Philadelphia Magazine (Dec. 10, 2014)

12/08/2014: Bensalem Masjid challenges Township's zoning scheme regulating religious institutions

On December 8, 2014, the Bensalem Masjid filed suit against Bensalem Township and the Bensalem Township Zoning Hearing Board, asserting its rights under RLUIPA, the First Amendment, and Pennsylvania's Religious Freedom Protection Act for the Township's failure to permit it to use its property as a house of worship.  This Masjid's Complaint states:

Bensalem Township’s scheme for regulating religious land uses—by banning places of worship throughout the Township except for scant individual parcels located throughout its jurisdiction and already occupied—effectively grants the Township and Board unbridled discretion to permit favored religious land uses and prohibit disfavored religious land uses, including the Bensalem Masjid.

The Township's Zoning Hearing Board also denied the Masjid a use variance, although it has granted several variances to other religious organizations in similar circumstances.

More information coming soon.