Posted by: Patricia Salkin | December 22, 2016

Fed. Dist. Court in PA Denies Motion to Dismiss RLUIPA Claims Against Township

The Bensalem Masjid was a non-profit, Muslim organization based in Bensalem Township. Under the Bensalem Code, religious institutions were permitted only within the district known as the “Institutional District”, or “IN District.” There were approximately thirty-five properties within the IN District, and non-religious assembly uses were not limited to the IN District. In order to locate outside of the IN District, religious groups were required to seek zoning relief from Bensalem. This case was brought by the United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division to enforce the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (“RLUIPA”), against Bensalem Township, Pennsylvania, following the denial of Bensalem Masjid’s application for a use variance to build a mosque in Bensalem, Pennsylvania.

As a preliminary matter, Bensalem Township argued that because only the Bensalem Zoning Hearing Board, and not the Township itself, could grant zoning variances, the Board was a required party. However, the court found that Defendant had the authority to enforce the zoning ordinances and decisions issued by the Board, and to rezone the Subject Property and amend the zoning ordinances at issue. Accordingly, the Bensalem Zoning Hearing Board was not a required party under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 19.

As to the RLUIPA Substantial Burden Claim, the Complaint alleged that the Bensalem Masjid fully engaged with the administrative process to obtain zoning relief and build their mosque, undergoing extensive questioning at several rounds of administrative hearings. Additonally, the United States alleged that seeking a use variance was the proper procedure for obtaining relief under the Bensalem Code, and that the Bensalem Masjid was told to use that procedure after discussions with Township officials. The court found that these specific allegations raised a factual issue that was not resolvable at this stage.

The United States next stated a claim under the Equal Terms provision of RLUIPA, by identifying several permitted uses on the Subject Property that would have much greater land impacts than the Bensalem Masjid’s proposed mosque. Here, the zones in which the subject property was located permitted private educational institutions, sanitariums, day care centers, municipal buildings, and colleges and universities without a variance; to use the subject property for a religious purpose, the owner was required obtain a use variance. The court held that this discrepancy in treatment between the permitted secular uses and the Bensalem Masjid’s proposed use justified an Equal Terms claim.

The United States’ Complaint next alleged that the Bensalem Masjid was subjected to a more burdensome variance application process than other groups. Specifically, the Bensalem Masjid was required to attend six hearings assessing its application, while the majority of other applications were decided in one hearing. Bensalem Masjid was also required to provide more information pursuant to its application than other comparator religious groups, including information that was outside the scope of the inquiry. These allegations were sufficient to state a claim under RLUIPA’s non-discrimination provision. Lastly, The United States alleged that Defendant’s zoning plan limiting where religious institutions could locate was unreasonable because houses of worship were only permitted in the IN District, and there were no such parcels for sale in Bensalem during the time period that the Bensalem Masjid was looking. Accordingly, the court held that the United States sufficiently stated an unreasonable limitations RLUIPA claim.

United States v. Bensalem Township, Pennsylvania, 2016 WL 6695511 (ED PA 11/14/2016)


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