Just to put this story in context, we should note that it originates back in early 2014… before San Bernardino, before Orlando and before ISIS well and truly got up to a full head of steam. But it was still well into the modern age of concerns over Islamic terrorism in general, so take that for what you will. In Bensalem Township, Pennsylvania a problem broke out with the zoning board. (Worth noting that Bensalm is just to the northeast of Philadelphia and the site of the Democratic National Convention this week. It’s “out in the county” as we sometimes say, with a total population of around 60K spread over a fair bit of land. I’ve been through there many times back in the day when I worked in Philly. It’s a lovely area.)
As the Washington Times reports the story, a local Muslim group which had been meeting in a local firehouse for several years applied to build a mosque adjacent to township property. This required a variance in the zoning codes… frequently not a big deal, but you still have to deal with the local officials for it. After a series of six different meetings, their application was denied. And now the Department of Justice is stepping in to sue them and force the board to grant the permit.
The Bensalem Township violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act when its zoning board in 2014 rejected a zoning request that would have allowed the Bensalem Masjid to build a mosque in the town, Justice Department attorneys wrote in a complaint filed Thursday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
“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. “The Department of Justice will continue to challenge unjustified local zoning actions around the country when they encroach upon this important civil right.”
The suit raises some interesting questions. First and foremost, how much of an obligation is the township under to accommodate the group under the Religious Land Use Act? (You can read more about the law here.) We’re not talking about a big city here with tons of resources. What if the application had come from the Pastafarians? Would they have to be granted a zoning variance? What if there are already three Methodist Churches but one of their many splinter factions wants to build a fourth? I’m just wondering where that line gets drawn and who does the drawing.
In any event, this sounds like a battle that Bensalem is destined to lose. If there isn’t another Mosque in the immediate area and the congregants have assembled the money and resources to build a code compliant structure to meet their needs on currently available land, the township could take a serious beating if they try to fight it. The fact that during the six zoning hearings they asked the Muslims if they planned to expand or, whether it would attract members from outside of Bensalem Township, is going to be fodder for them to lose the battle of public opinion in the press.
Does a small community such as this have any control over their own cultural arc in a situation like this, and should they? It’s clearly causing consternation among the townsfolk, but realistically I don’t know that they can or should be able to do anything about it.