Posted by: Patricia Salkin | October 15, 2015

Fed. Dist. Ct in PA Finds Applicant for Mosque Asserted Valid RLUIPA Claims Following Denial of Use Variance

This case arose from the denial of Plaintiff Bensalem Masjid’s application for a use variance to build a mosque on a split zoned parcel of property in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. In 2008, Plaintiff began searching for a location to build a mosque. Plaintiffs alleged that Township’s Business Professional (“BP”), R-A and R-11 zoning districts permit several secular uses that are comparable to the impact a religious house of worship would have on Township’s overall zoning scheme. Plaintiff alleged that the Board treated Plaintiff’s application with harsher scrutiny than those of other applicants, subjecting Plaintiff to five public hearings before deciding the variance while other applicants had as few as one, and that the Board’s denial constituted an abuse of discretion.

As to Plaintiff’s RLUIPA claims, Plaintiff alleged that there are no other properties in Bensalem for Plaintiff to use, thus adequately alleging a substantial burden under the RLUIPA. Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint also plausibly alleged that the Board both applied different and more vigorous use variance standards to Plaintiff in evaluating Plaintiff’s use variance application and displayed animus towards Muslims generally; these allegations were sufficient to state a claim under RLUIPA’s nondiscrimination provision. Next, the court found that the “unreasonable limitation” claim survived the motion to dismiss because Defendants’ zoning plan limiting where religious institutions can locate is unreasonable because houses of worship were only permitted on IN zoned parcels and there were no such parcels available in Bensalem. Finally, contrary to Defendants’ claim that Plaintiff must identify an identical comparator (a secular developer with three differently zoned lots), the court held that the Plaintiff had sufficiently shown that several permitted uses on the Property would have much greater land impacts than the proposed mosque: thus, an adequate claim under the RLUIPA Equal Terms provision.

Next, Plaintiff argued that the Township’s zoning laws amounted to a prior restraint on speech because rezoning is subject to Township’s unbridled discretion under Pennsylvania law. This claim was dismissed since there was procedural safeguards in place, such as an appeal to the Court of Common Pleas. However, because there were issues of material fact, the court refused to dismiss the Plaintiff’s first amendment free exercise claim or the equal protection claim.

The Bensalem Masjid v Bensalem Township, 2015 WL 5611546 (ED PA 9/22/2015)

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