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Mosque battle heats up as feds sue Pennsylvania township over religious discrimination claim
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The Department of Justice is suing a Pennsylvania township for refusing to allow the construction of a mosque. - photo by Billy Hallowell
The U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit last month against a local government in Pennsylvania, alleging that officials there violated federal law by refusing to grant a permit for the construction of a mosque.

It's a lawsuit seeking unspecified damages, approval to build the mosque and training for local employees on land use laws, Philly.com reported.

The overarching basis of the complaint? Alleged religious discrimination.

"Our Constitution protects the rights of religious communities to build places of worship free from unlawful interference and unnecessary barriers," Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Departments Civil Rights Division and principal deputy assistant attorney general, said in a statement.

Gupta said the agency will challenge "unjustified local zoning actions" if and when they impede this constitutional right.

The Justice Department's battle against Bensalem Township, Pennsylvania, touched off after the township denied zoning approval to let a Muslim congregation build a mosque on three pieces of land that were not specifically zoned for religious construction.

Bensalem officials voted 4-0 against approving the Bensalem Masjid congregation's application for the mosque back in 2014, and that was only the beginning of the back and forth that has since unfolded.

Now, the federal government is getting involved, calling the denial a violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, a law that is intended to protect churches, houses of worship, institutions and people from zoning and other related land discrimination.

A summary of the law says that it "prohibits zoning and landmarking laws that substantially burden the religious exercise of churches or other religious assemblies or institutions absent the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest."

In the case of the Bensalem Masjid mosque project, the congregation "pleaded" with officials to allow the mosque's construction over a period of 10 months, conducting traffic studies, revising design plans and explaining Muslim practices during a series of hearings, according to The New York Times.

In the end, though, the Bensalem Township declined to permit the building.

The central claims in the complaint are that a substantial burden was placed on the group's religious exercise and that it was treated more stringently than other religious groups. Two Hindu temples and an Indian Orthodox church were just two projects that were apparently granted variances without much trouble.

A press release announcing the lawsuit says that the federal government believes "the township placed unreasonable limitations on religious assemblies through its land use regulations."

The township, though, has expressed disappointment with the filing and claims to have worked with the Justice Department to try to remedy the situation.

"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," Bensalem solicitor Joseph Pizzo told Philly.com.

There's one other detail, though, that will likely make the case a bit more interesting: The township recently granted a permit to Faith Unity Inc., another group seeking to build a mosque, with Pizzo saying that Bensalem Masjid simply didn't make a solid case to the zoning board for its own house of worship.

Another concern that Pizzo expressed, according to The Wall Street Journal, is the traffic impact that the proposed mosque would have on an already crowded street.

The lawsuit comes amid continued claims that anti-Muslim sentiment is running rampant, specifically amid a heated election season during which Republican candidate Donald Trump has made controversial proposals such as restricting Muslim immigration to America.

The complaint also follows a series of protests against new mosque projects protests that first touched off in 2010, with the most publicized furor surrounding the proposed mosque near Ground Zero.
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