by Timothy Welbeck, Esq., CAIR-Philadelphia Staff Attorney
The United States Justice Department recently announced it came to an agreement with Bensalem Township to resolve a dispute stemming from the township’s denial of zoning approval which would have permitted Bensalem Masjid to build a mosque on three adjoining parcels of land in the township. Bensalem Masjid and its advocates argued the refusal violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), which was enacted in part to prevent religious institutions from experiencing overly burdensome zoning restrictions.
The Justice Department agreed that the township behaved in a discriminatory manner and filed suit against it. The settlement terms that were approved by the court on September 7, 2017, constitute an enormous victory for religious liberty, particularly as it relates to the Muslim community of Bensalem and the surrounding areas. It is our hope the decision of the Justice Department will set a lasting precedent as well.
We wholly believed Bensalem Township acted out of religious discrimination and xenophobia when it refused to approve the zoning for Bensalem Masjid, because the township’s decision and treatment of Bensalem Masjid differed greatly from other non-Muslim institutions within its jurisdiction. Ryan Tack-Hooper and Ryan Houldin, our Civil Rights Attorneys at the time, worked tirelessly with other organizations and firms to overturn the township’s decision so that the Muslim community of Bensalem could worship freely. These efforts proved ultimately successful. We are glad the United States Justice Department agreed with our conclusions.
In announcing the decision, Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore said:
“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.”
This is an important affirmation from such a ranking public official.
The agreement announced by the Justice Department resolves the suit it filed against in the township last year. Additionally, a similar lawsuit brought by the Bensalem Masjid against the township has also reached a favorable settlement. Because of these two agreements, Bensalem Masjid may now use the three adjoining properties for their intended purpose of building a mosque. The township will also make efforts to prevent further discrimination, such as amending its zoning ordinances to comply with RLUIPA, advising officials of the law’s requirements, etc. The court has retained jurisdiction over both cases until the masjid is built in order to protect the rights of the Muslim community. The resolution to these lawsuits will allow generations of Muslims to practice their religion on Hulmeville Road, a main arterial state road in Bensalem.
We at the Council on American-Islamic Relations remain committed to protecting your civil rights and liberties. This recent agreement between the Justice Department and Bensalem Township illustrates one of the many victories CAIR has achieved. We will continue this fight on your behalf.