Almost a year ago, we reported on The Bensalem Masjid, Inc.’s lawsuit against Bensalem Township, Pennsylvania following the Township’s denial of Masjid’s use variance application to build a 16,900-square foot mosque, including a 500-square foot conference room, a 4,000-square foot multipurpose room and 154 parking spaces (prior post here). After five sessions of the public hearing and deliberations over the course of nine months, the Township’s Zoning Hearing Board denied the application. Masjid currently worships in a rented fire hall with another Muslim group, which it alleges violates its religious beliefs in several ways discussed in our prior post.
Masjid sued the Township and its agencies under the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), the U.S. Constitution, and state law. Almost a year after commencing suit, a Pennsylvania federal court largely denied the Township’s motion to dismiss these claims as unripe and ruled that all but two of Masjid’s claims could proceed.
First, the Township argued that Masjid’s lawsuit was not ripe for the court’s review because Masjid could have, but did not, seek to rezone the property it sought to develop. Under the Township’s zoning code, houses of worship are allowed only in the Institutional zoning district. The property that Masjid wants to develop, however, is partially located in two of the Township’s residential zones (R-A and R-11) and the business zone, none of which permit houses of worship. The Court concluded that Masjid’s claims are ripe for review, even though Masjid never sought a rezone of the subject property, because the Board denied the use variance application.
The Court next concluded that Masjid had alleged colorable violations of RLUIPA and could proceed with those claims. First, Masjid alleges that the use variance denial substantially burdens its religious exercise by forcing it to continue to worship from a rented fire hall that it asserts cannot accommodate its religious needs. Second, Masjid alleges a violation of RLUIPA’s nondiscrimination provision because it contends the Board applied different and more rigorous use variance standards when reviewing its application and also displayed anti-Muslim animus. Third, Masjid alleges that the Township’s zoning plan has so few locational opportunities for religious organizations that it violates RLUIPA’s unreasonable limits provision.
Masjid’s fourth and final claimed RLUIPA violation is under the statute’s equal terms provision. According to Masjid, several uses that are permitted on the subject property would have a greater land use impact than the proposed mosque, such as municipal buildings. The Township argued that the equal terms claim should fail because Masjid was required to, but did not, identify a secular comparator that owned one parcel of land located in three separate zoning districts, like the property that Masjid sought to develop. But the Court rejected this argument and concluded that a comparator need not be identical to establish an equal terms violation. The Court also permitted Masjid to move forward with its Free Exercise, Equal Protection and certain state law claims.
The Court’s Memorandum of Decision in The Bensalem Masjid, Inc. v. Bensalem Township, Pennsylvania (E.D. PA 2015) is available here.
Original photography by Tony Hisgett (Some Rights Reserved).