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Muslim congregation sues Bensalem to build mosque

A Muslim congregation in suburban Philadelphia has filed a federal suit against Bensalem, claiming the township has violated its constitutional rights by denying them permission to build a mosque.

The congregation, the Bensalem Masjid, is comprised of about 200 families who have worshiped for six years in a rented firehall on Bensalem Boulevard.  During that time, they have sought to build a mosque on a 4.5 acre parcel leased to the Masjid on the 3800 block of Hulmeville Road, a corridor which is already home to four houses of worship. According to the suit, the congregation repeatedly has been rebuffed in their attempts to get a zoning variance to build a 17,000-square-foot structure with 154 parking spaces.

Bensalem officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

In Bensalem, there are only 35 parcels zoned for houses of worship, the suit states. Twenty of those lots are occupied by other religious institutions, four are used as parks and recreation areas, five are cemeteries, and six are in use as schools or institutional residences.

The Masjid has petitioned the township to make an exception since there are no other parcels of land zoned for religious use.

"Our community has spent five years simply trying to find an appropriate place to come together to pray," said Dr. Imtiaz Chaudhry, one of the members of Bensalem Masjid. "All we want is the same freedom to practice our religion that other faith groups have in Bensalem."

According to the suit, the township has made exceptions in the past for other religious organizations to build on land not specifically zoned for the purpose. But when the Masjid applied in Oct. 2013 for a variance to build on the Hulmeville Road parcel, the township engineers the following month denied their application. But in December, the township granted a variance to construct a Hindu temple on the site of a former swim club, and in April 2014 granted another variance so that another Hindu temple could be built on the site of a failed restaurant.

The suit cites several additional examples where the township granted variances to a Greek Orthodox Church, a Buddhist temple and a Pentecostal Christian church.

"Every American has a right to the free exercise of religion on equal terms with other religions, and governments cannot restrict that free exercise without a good reason," said attorney Ryan Tack-Hooper. "Bensalem Township violated those fundamental principles by refusing to allow the construction of a mosque without any compelling reasons for doing so."