Settlement Paves Way for Pennsylvania Mosque Construction

(CN) – A nonprofit Muslim group was given the green light Tuesday to build a mosque in a Pennsylvania township after the Justice Department settled a year-long legal battle accusing the township of discrimination on the basis of religion.

The group, Bensalem Masjid, contacted the U.S. Department of Justice in 2014 alleging that Bensalem, Pa., denied its zoning application for a mosque in an act of religious discrimination.

After reviewing the group’s claims, the DOJ filed a complaint in July 2016 against Bensalem, claiming it violated the U.S. Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA.

Members of Bensalem Masjid spent more than a year looking for a suitable location before finally submitting their proposal for a 27,243-square-foot mosque to the town’s mayor, Joseph DiGirolamo.

After 18 meetings and six hearings over several months that included talks with DiGirolamo, Bensalem’s Township Council and members of its zoning board left the group no closer to approval for the mosque’s construction.

During the meetings, the zoning board raised concerns over the size of the mosque and specifically cited worries over the “possible growth of the mosque’s membership,” according to the DOJ’s complaint.

A proposal for a smaller mosque was also allegedly rejected, as was the group’s offering of abbreviated prayer services to address the city’s concerns over increased congestion.

Bensalem Masjid contacted the DOJ shortly after discovering that four Catholic schools, a Hindu temple and Buddhist temple were approved for construction in the same area where its proposed mosque was rejected.

Under Bansalem’s zoning codes, religious institutions are permitted only within the town’s so-called “institutional district.” Anyone wanting to build a religious institution outside that district must apply for a zoning variance and meet a series of specific conditions. The Justice Department claimed Bensalem Masjid met all five and was still rejected.

On Tuesday, the allegations were resolved in a settlement agreement granting Bensalem Masjid permission to use three adjoining properties to build its mosque in the township.

“The township has also agreed to review and amend its zoning ordinance to comply with the requirements of RLUIPA. Additionally, the township has agreed that it will advise its officials and employees about the requirements of RLUIPA, among other remedial measures,” the DOJ said in a statement.

The new mosque will mean more convenience for local Muslims. Until it is built, members of Bensalem Masjid must drive 20 minutes to reach the nearest mosque, which can prove to be a difficult task because the faith dictates that prayers must be recited five times a day and should be led by a dedicated imam.

John Gore, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a statement that 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,” Gore said.

Bensalem was founded in 1692 and is home to 60,000 people.

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