On July 21, the United States Department of Justice sued Bensalem Township, Pennsylvania, in federal court alleging violations of each of RLUIPA’s provisions following the Township’s 2014 denial of a variance application submitted by the Bensalem Masjid, Inc. (Masjid) to build a mosque. While it is always noteworthy when the DOJ sues a municipality over an alleged RLUIPA violation, the DOJ’s suit against the Township is especially interesting because Masjid, as the religious applicant, already filed federal suit against the Township in 2014. Read our post about Masjid’s lawsuit here.
The DOJ’s complaint, available here, relies on many of the same facts as Masjid does in its complaint. The basic facts are that Masjid is currently using space in a fire hall for religious exercise, but allegedly cannot exercise freely important aspects of its religion. Masjid began searching for new property for a mosque, found a 4.5 acre parcel it sought to develop, and applied for but was denied an application for a use variance to permit the religious use where such uses were not allowed. The DOJ alleges that the Township’s actions violate RLUIPA’s substantial burden, equal terms, non-discrimination, and unreasonable limits provisions. Masjid alleges the same in its complaint, along with federal constitutional and state law claims.
This is not the first time that the DOJ has sued a municipality that had already been sued by the religious applicant. The DOJ sued Des Plaines, Illinois, over a mosque denial (read our post here), but the cases were then consolidated. It is not clear if the DOJ will similarly move to consolidate its suit against the Township with the earlier case brought by Masjid. The DOJ’s press release about its lawsuit against the Township is available here.