Posted by: Patricia Salkin | September 8, 2017

US DOJ Settles RLUIPA Suit Over Municipal Denial of Variance Request to Build Mosque

Editor’s Note: The following summary appears in September 2017 issue of Religious Freedom Focus published by the Civil Rights Division of the USDOJ: the

On September 5, the Civil Rights Division announced that it had reached an agreement with Bensalem Township, Pennsylvania, to resolve allegations that the Township violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) when it denied zoning approval to allow a local Muslim organization to build a mosque on land it owned in the Township.
The United States filed suit in July 2016, alleging that the Township violated the RLUIPA rights of the Bensalem Masjid when it denied it a variance to build a mosque on three parcels of land that it had purchased on a main road in the Township.  The suit alleged that the denial imposed a substantial burden on the Bensalem Masjid’s religious exercise, treated the group less favorably than the Township treated nonreligious assemblies in similar zones, and discriminated against it on the basis of religion in light of its treatment of prior variance applications by other religious entities. The suit also alleged that the Township violated RLUIPA’s prohibition on governments placing unreasonable limitations on religious assemblies, based on the zoning code’s restrictions on places of worship generally.  The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylania denied the Township’s motion to dismiss in November 2016.
As part of the agreement, the Bensalem Masjid will be permitted to build its mosque. The Township has also agreed to review and amend its zoning ordinance to comply with the requirements of RLUIPA, and take other remedial measures.  The Township also resolved a private lawsuit brought by the Bensalem Masjid against Bensalem Township.
On the day the agreement was announced, Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, stated:  “Federal law protects the rights of all religious communities to build places of worship free from discrimination. This agreement ensures that all citizens of Bensalem Township may freely exercise this important civil right.”


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