Photo courtesy of: Philadelphia Magazine
Bensalem has its fair share of churches and other houses of worship. The Bucks County township of 60,000 has Catholic churches, Protestant churches, synagogues, a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, and a Buddhist Temple. And there are two Hindu temples under development. But if you’re a Bensalem Muslim, you’re out of luck, because Bensalem doesn’t have a mosque. Instead, local Muslims meet once a week for Friday prayers inside a rented fire hall.
The Bensalem Masjid, a religious organization with some 200 families in its congregation, wants to change that but says that Bensalem Township and its Zoning Hearing Board haven’t exactly rolled out the red carpet for its proposed mosque (rendering above) on the 3800 block of Hulmeville Road, which has several other houses of worship within a one-mile radius. And now the group has filed a lawsuit (below) against the township and the board in federal court.
The group has been looking for property for its mosque since 2008. And due to zoning regulations in Bensalem, you can’t just erect a mosque — or any other house of worship — wherever you want.
The Bensalem Masjid says that it tried to buy existing houses of worship, which would already be zoned correctly, but none were interested in selling. It put in bids on other properly zoned parcels, but those bids were rejected or went unanswered. Finally, the group found a 4.58-acre, three-parcel stretch of property on Hulmeville Road that would be perfect for its needs — big enough for a cafeteria, a school, and all of the other facilities they wanted to bring to the Muslims in the area — but the group of properties weren’t zoned for house-of-worship use. And so, the Bensalem Masjid went before the zoning board to try to get a variance.
In February, the board expressed certain concerns about the project, and so the group changed its physical plans, eliminating a proposed basement and cafeteria. Another hearing was held. And another. And another. In total, six hearings were held, making the process one of the longest — if not the longest zoning hearing process — in Bensalem’s history.
Board members questioned the Masjid about parking and traffic. One board member expressed concern that the mosque would bring in Muslims from New Jersey and nearby Philadelphia.
Community members were invited to air their concerns about the project. One suggested that unlike a church or synagogue, the mosque wouldn’t bring the same kind of benefit to the overall community that a synagogue or church would bring.
The fears of another community member who spoke were a little more clear:
…mosques have patterns and the pattern of mosques has been that when they — when the congregants outgrow the mosque, they spill out on to the streets. And what they do is they — they block — pull up blockades and they bring out their rugs, and they put them down on the street, and they do their prayers out on the streets. I have a video of this if you would like to see to back it up, in several cities around the world … What they do is they put up their barricades and they lay their carpets down on the street and they pray. And it takes them 45 minutes. It draws a lot of people, and it creates problems for the businesses on that street because they cannot do commerce because nobody can get in or out of their stores.
The Masjid brought in at least 10 expert witnesses to testify on its behalf — from a civil engineer and traffic experts to an Islamic theologian — but the board still said no. And the group contends that the same board granted variances to other nearby religious organizations similarly restricted by the zoning laws. The variance obtained in April to build a Hindu temple on the site of a restaurant was reportedly not met with significant objection.
So is this Islamophobia at work?
“We can’t see into their hearts, so we judge them by their conduct,” says Ryan Tack-Hooper, the Masjid’s attorney from the Philadelphia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who suggests that the board’s concerns over traffic and parking were unfounded and that the board didn’t make an issue out of traffic and parking for others houses of worship in the area. “It’s very clear that they treated this case differently than they treated other faith centers. There’s definitely some prejudice at work here.”
In its lawsuit, the Masjid accuses Bensalem and the board of violating laws regarding religious land use, Pennsylvania’s Municipal Planning Code and Religious Freedom Protection Act, and the group’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
The zoning board’s attorney could not be reached for comment, and an attorney representing the township did not immediately return a call seeking comment. One board member, realtor Joanne Redding, hung up on us when we tried to ask her about the mosque.