This summer, the Department of Justice filed a religious land-use discrimination suit against Bensalem Township after township officials turned down a mosque’s application for a zoning variance.
This week, a judge tossed out the township’s request to have the case dismissed.
“We believe the facts support our view of the case, and a judge has rejected their arguments twice,” said Roman Storzer, a lawyer for Bensalem Masjid who represented the group in an earlier and ongoing civil suit.
The Bensalem Masjid, which holds services along with another Islamic group out of a firehouse hall, has been looking for a permanent location since 2008.
When they were denied the zoning variance for a location on Hulmeville Road in 2014, members contacted the US Department of Justice, which later filed the legal challenge under the U.S. Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
In the complaint, the DOJ alleges that Bensalem Township treated other religious groups “more favorably in its variance determinations than it treated the Bensalem Masjid’s application.”
Township solicitor Joe Pizzo disputed that version of events.
The masjid made “almost a token effort” to file for a variance, he said. “They also essentially came into the case and from the outset said, ‘We’re a religious organization … and because of the RLUIPA statute, you essentially have to give us the variance.”
He said traffic along the proposed Hulmeville Road location is one concern. The DOJ suit documents a prolonged hearing process with some give and take over volume concerns. It asks for a variance as well as anti-discrimination training for Bensalem Township staff.
Storzer, who specializes in religious land use law, said while the legal battles can be bitter, in most cases a settlement is reached.
“It’s been my experience that when parties come together and accept the fact that a particular religious group is going to exist in their community … people generally get along at that point,” he said.
“A settlement that is in the best interest of all parties might be able to be reached,” said Pizzo.
Bensalem, already home to Hindu and Thai Buddhist temples, approved another mosque’s zoning variance in December.