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Suburban Muslim group sues township over religious discrimination

CAIR-Philadelphia files suit on behalf of Bensalem Masjid, citing violations of free expression of religion.

AN ISLAMIC advocacy organization is suing a Bucks County township for discrimination after the town's zoning board rejected an application to erect a mosque.

According to the lawsuit filed yesterday by CAIR-Philadelphia in federal court, Bensalem Township is demonstrating "burdensome, discriminatory and unreasonable land use regulations" by blocking local Muslims' ability to build a mosque. The proposed Islamic worship site would be the first in the suburban town just north of Philadelphia.

"Bensalem Township has denied this community's rights to build a mosque even though they granted similar applications from other faith institutions," said Ryan Tack-Hooper, staff attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR.

"They had no good reason for doing so," he added. "Not only do we have a right to free exercise, we have a right to equal treatment. We were denied both in this case."

CAIR-Philadelphia, whose headquarters is in Center City, claims the township denied an application filed by the Bensalem Masjid Inc. (masjid is Arabic for "mosque") for a variance to build. Because Bensalem requires religious facilities to be built on specially zoned lots, the lawsuit alleges that all such lots are "occupied or otherwise unavailable."

The Bensalem Masjid Inc. is a religious organization incorporated under state law last year. It has about 200 members - 80 percent of them living in Bensalem. They're eyeing a property on Hulmeville Road near several other churches and schools. Tack-Hooper said that Bensalem Masjid members now worship inside the banquet hall of a local firehouse, where they are at maximum capacity.

"In the last 20 years, the country has seen a lot of Muslim immigrants, and as a consequence, they're looking for places to pray," Tack-Hooper said.

"In this case, [the township] is not going to let them build the first mosque in Bensalem."

The lawsuit alleges violations of protections guaranteed under the Constitution, such as the right to free expression, free exercise of religion and equal treatment under the law.

No representative from the Bensalem Township Mayor's Office, the town solicitor or the zoning hearing board could be reached for comment.