Building and zoning laws have traditionally been up to local and state governments under the theory that the impact of various uses – residential, commercial or agricultural is felt by the people who live closest to the homes, businesses or farms.

But in its unshakeable belief that it knows best for Americans, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) has filed suit against a township in Pennsylvania to force it to allow the building of a Muslim mosque even after the zoning board denied permission.

Bensalem Township stands accused of discriminating against Muslims on the basis of religion and imposing what the federal government calls a “substantial burden” on their right to exercise their religious freedom.

The township has churches of many denominations and synagogues, as well as a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall and even a Buddhist temple, but there is no mosque as a home for Muslim worship.

According to the Bensalem Masjid, a Muslim organization, there are 200 families who hold prayers in a fire department hall, rather than in a dedicated space built to “face” the Islamic holy city of Mecca, as their religion dictates.

Zoning laws in Bensalem, like those in every other township, county and city, regulate where houses of worship – for any faith – may be built, and the Muslims have not found a suitable location that both meets their needs and the zoning requirements.

The federal lawsuit comes after the congregation failed in its bid for a variance from zoning laws that would have allowed a building large enough to accommodate a cafeteria, school, and meeting rooms, in addition to space for prayer services.

While the Muslim congregation chose to see the denial of the variance as discrimination, in fact there is no right to approval, and concerns raised by residents at public hearings carry great weight in such decisions for the very fact that buildings and use have always been a local matter.

Concerns about the construction plans, parking and traffic patterns and the overall benefit to the community led to the denial of the variance, but with the filing of the DOJ’s lawsuit, it may only be a matter of time before big government steps in and orders the little township to bow to the all-powerful Washington D.C. and allow the building to go forward.



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