A federal court in Pennsylvania has denied Bensalem Township’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by the United States Department of Justice challenging the Township’s denial of a use variance for a mosque.  The lawsuit alleges violations of the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and is in addition to a separate lawsuit filed by the religious group itself – Bensalem Masjid (Masjid).  Masjid sought to build its own mosque because it had been relegated to using space in a fire hall for religious worship.  Without a mosque, Masjid claims its members violate their religious beliefs in several important respects, as the fire hall space cannot accommodate their religious beliefs: separating the sexes during worship; performing “wudu,” the ablution before prayer; and worshipping in a mosque that is properly dedicated to God, is oriented towards Mecca, and is consecrated.

Masjid began its search for a new location in 2008.  Under the Township’s zoning code, religious uses are permitted only in the Institutional District (IN District), where there are about 35 properties total.  Although Masjid was unable to find a site in the IN District, it found three adjacent properties encompassing multiple zoning districts, none of which permitted religious uses, and entered into a lease with an option to purchase the properties.  After consulting with Township officials, Masjid submitted an application for a use variance to allow the properties to be put to religious use.  The application was denied in November 2014 after six sessions of a public hearing.  Masjid sued the Township following the denial, which we previously reported on here.

In 2016, the DOJ also sued the Township over the same denial (see post here).  The Township moved to dismiss each of the four RLUIPA claims raised by the DOJ (substantial burden; equal terms; nondiscrimination; and unreasonable limitations).  The Court denied dismissal and noted that the Township had unsuccessfully sought dismissal of the same claims in the case brought by Masjid (Memorandum of Decision in Masjid case available here).  The Court also noted that the claims brought by the DOJ were the ones that survived dismissal in the other pending action.

The Township first moved to dismiss the DOJ’s complaint on the ground that the DOJ had failed to join a required party (the Bensalem Zoning Hearing Board).  According to the Township, only the Zoning Hearing Board could grant use variances and for that reason had to be named as a defendant.  The court was not persuaded, and instead found that since the municipality is authorized to enforce and amend its zoning laws, the DOJ could attain the relief it sought without the Zoning Hearing Board being made a defendant.

The Township also moved to dismiss each of the four RLUIPA claims alleged by the DOJ (substantial burden; equal terms; nondiscrimination; and unreasonable limitations).  The court rejected each of these claims:

  • Substantial Burden: The Township claimed that there could be no substantial burden on religious exercise because Masjid had failed to pursue an available zoning remedy in the form of a rezone. Stated differently, if there is another avenue through which to seek relief, the burden cannot be substantial.  But the court determined that there was a factual dispute as to whether the use variance or the rezone was the proper procedure, so dismissal was inappropriate at this stage.
  • Equal Terms: This claim was sufficiently alleged, since several zoning districts within the Township allowed secular assembly uses but prohibited religious uses from the same zone.
  • Nondiscrimination: The Court found that the DOJ’s allegation that Masjid was subject to a more burdensome variance application process than other groups was sufficient to allow this claim to survive.
  • Unreasonable Limitations: The Township contended that because other groups were able to locate properties in the IN district, its zoning regulations could not violate the unreasonable limitations provision. But the DOJ alleged that there were no parcels for sale in the IN District during Masjid’s search period, and the Court determined that this factual dispute meant the claim had been properly pleaded.

The court’s memorandum of decision relating to the motion to dismiss in United States v. Bensalem Township is available here.