Last week, the Eastern District of Pennsylvania largely ruled in favor of a local Islamic group that sued a local municipality for refusing to allow it to build a mosque in Bensalem Masjid Inc. v. Bensalem Township, No. 14-6955 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 22, 2015).
The Bensalem Masjid and its 200-family membership currently worship in a 2,400 square foot rented fire hall along with another Islamic group. Masjid believes worshipping at this location forces it to violate its religious beliefs, namely because of the logistical constraints associated with 200 families worshiping and praying 5 times per day in the 2,400 square foot space. Masjid also believes worshipping in the fire hall violates its religious beliefs because the space is not oriented toward Mecca and also lacks the religious, cultural and social experience of a mosque.
In an effort to remedy these issues, Masjid spent 6 years searching for property in Bensalem Township on which it could construct a mosque that fulfills all its religious requirements. Bensalem Township has a population of around 60,000 people but contains no mosques. In 2013, Masjid found what it deemed a suitable property for its mosque, which was actually comprised of 3 separate parcels in 3 separate zoning districts. None of the 3 zoning districts permitted religious assembly use, so Masjid was required to obtain a use variance for the property.
In October 2013, Masjid submitted its use variance application to the Bensalem Township Zoning Hearing Board, requesting permission to build a 16,900 square foot mosque on the property. After multiple public hearings over the course of a 9-month period, the Zoning Hearing Board denied Masjid’s use variance application. In response to the denial, in December 2014 Masjid sued Bensalem Township for violating its rights under RLUIPA, the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and the Pennsylvania Religious Freedom Protection Act.
On September 22, 2015, the Court largely denied the Township’s Motion to Dismiss, ruling that Masjid could proceed on all but two of its claims. The Township first argued Masjid’s lawsuit was not ripe for review because Masjid could have tried to rezone the property to allow for houses of worship as of right. The Court disagreed, instead finding Masjid’s claims became ripe for review at the time the Zoning Hearing Board denied the use variance application.
The Court also ruled that Masjid asserted four plausible claims under RLUIPA. Masjid alleged a plausible Substantial Burden claim by arguing the denial of its use variance substantially burdens its religious exercise by forcing Masjid to continue worshipping in the rented fire hall that cannot logistically accommodate Masjid’s members or their worship needs. Masjid also alleged a plausible claim under RLUIPA’s Nondiscrimination provision by arguing the Zoning Hearing Board displayed an anti-Muslim animus and utilized more rigorous use variance standards when addressing Masjid’s application. Masjid further alleged a plausible Unreasonable Limitations claim under RLUIPA by showing Bensalem Township’s zoning plan provides extremely few locations for religious organizations.
Finally, Masjid asserted a plausible claim under RLUIPA’s Equal Terms provision. Masjid alleged that Bensalem Township’s zoning provisions allowed several secular uses on the property where Masjid wanted to construct its mosque that had a greater land use impact than houses of worship. The Township argued the Equal Terms claim must fail because Masjid did not identify any similarly situated secular comparators. The Court sided with Masjid, ruling that a secular comparator is not needed to establish a facial Equal Terms violation.
A full copy of the Court’s decision on Bensalem Township’s Motion to Dismiss is available here.
Dalton & Tomich, PLC is the national leader in successfully helping churches, other religious institutions and their insurers defend their rights in land use and zoning matters under RLUIPA, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. We have helped clients win cases against municipalities and other local government bodies from coast to coast, with experience serving both as general counsel and special litigation counsel.
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