Bensalem Township has temples, synagogues, and churches, but in 2014 Bucks County's largest municipality declined to grant a permit for a mosque. That, said the U.S. Justice Department in a suit filed Thursday, constituted religious discrimination.
The suit seeks to have the township give the Bensalem Masjid approval to build the mosque, provide training for township employees regarding religious land-use laws, and pay unspecified damages.
The Bensalem Masjid has been embroiled in litigation with the township since 2014. It first began looking for a place to build a mosque in 2008.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, "demonstrates the seriousness of the problem in Bensalem Township," said Roman Storzer, the Masjid's lead attorney in a federal lawsuit filed against the township.
The township was disappointed by the federal filing, Joseph Pizzo, its solicitor, said Thursday evening.
The township has been working with the Justice Department since the Masjid's lawsuit was filed, he said. "The township has provided as much information as we can to show that the township has no bias against Muslims or any other religious groups," Pizzo said.
In fact, Bensalem recently granted a permit to another congregation, Faith Unity, to build a mosque in the township. Bensalem Masjid, Pizzo said, "failed to properly put a case before the Zoning Hearing Board."
Members of the Bensalem Masjid must drive to mosques in Yardley or Philadelphia to worship, or not worship at all. Once a week, they hold prayer services in a rented fire hall in Bensalem, a space that does not meet their religious needs, according to the suit.
About 200 families belong to the congregation. "We have young children who are growing up without a place of worship," said Imtiaz Chaudhry, a Bensalem Masjid member. "We feel like we're not able to provide the young children in our community a place that they can call home."
In recent years, mosques have encountered resistance across the country. Most famously, protests broke out over plans for an Islamic community center near the 9/11 ground zero site in New York City in 2010.
"Our constitution protects the rights of religious communities to build places of worship free from unlawful interference and unnecessary barriers," said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, in a statement.
In 2012, the Masjid applied for a zoning variance to allow the mosque to be built in an area not specifically designated for it. Only one area of the township is codified for religious organizations, but officials regularly grant zoning variances to permit them to be built elsewhere, according to the suit.
However, after six hearings, during which township officials asked members of the Masjid questions such as whether the mosque would bring more Muslims to Bensalem, the board denied the Masjid's request, the suit said.