By Kevin Daley, DCNF
The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced Monday it has settled a civil rights dispute with a Pennsylvania township that refused to approve the construction of a mosque for a local Muslim congregation.
The settlement provides the congregation the necessary zoning approval to build the mosque, and proscribes other remedial measures. The congregation must still obtain approval from the town and various county and state regulators before construction begins.
“Federal law protects the rights of all religious communities to build places of worship free from discrimination,” said John Gore, acting chief of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. “This agreement ensures that all citizens of Bensalem Township may freely exercise this important civil right.”
The Department intervened in the long-running dispute in 2016. Government lawyers sued the town of Bensalem, Penn., arguing the town zoning board discriminated against an Islamic group by denying their request for a routine zoning variance in order to build a mosque on three adjoining parcels owned by the congregation. DOJ argued the denial constituted a violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
At public hearings, zoning board members expressed concerns about parking and traffic, as well as the size of the proposed mosque, which is located in a residential area. DOJ argued these concerns were frivolous, especially in light of the fact that the board previously issued such variances to other religious groups and commercial interests.
Some 200 families belong to the congregation, called Bensalem Masjid, which currently rents space at a local fire hall. Members of the masjid say the space is insufficient to their liturgical and spiritual needs.
The town has granted another Muslim congregation, Faith Unity, a permit to build a mosque in the township.
The remedial measures proscribed for the town by the agreement include requirements to amend zoning policies to ensure compliance with RLUIPA, and train township employees about the law’s requirements.
Bensalem Masjid’s effort to build a mosque for their community began in 2008.
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