The Department of Justice (DOJ) has brought lawsuits against towns and counties in three states for blocking the construction of mosques since the start of the year.
The latest was lodged against Culpepper County, Va. in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia. DOJ alleges the county imposed a substantial burden on the religious practice of the Islamic Center of Culpepper by refusing to grant a “pump and haul” permit allowing them to transport sewage, a move that effectively blocks construction. The county has issued 26 such permits since 1992 and never denied one for commercial or religious use.
The DOJ argues the county has violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal law that restrains government officials from infringing on the religious practice of faith communities by imposing burdensome restrictions on their use of property.
The DOJ brought a similar complaint against Bernards Township, N.J. in November.
In a recent court filing, DOJ alleges the Bernards Township Planning Board discriminated against the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge (ISBR) during a lengthy application process that ultimately resulted in the town’s denial of a proposed mosque.
Government lawyers say the board applied standards of review to the ISBR it had not applied to other congregations and assemblies. These include more demanding fire safety standards, and a higher number of required parking spots (107 as opposed to the standard 50). The town is also accused of amending parliamentary rules governing hearings so that supporters of the mosque were granted less time to speak in their defense.
The township argues that it provided the mosque numerous opportunities to redress its legitimate concerns.
“The Township maintains that the Planning Board denial was based on legitimate land use and safety concerns which Plaintiffs refused, and to this day, refuse to address,” the town said in a statement. “To that point, the Planning Board presented Plaintiffs an opportunity for reconsideration to address the land use issues early on, and Plaintiffs have shown no interest in complying.”
Bensalem, Penn., a town of 60,000 in Bucks County, is also battling a federal RLUIPA complaint. As in Bernards Township, government lawyers say the town has blocked construction of a mosque by refusing to grant a zoning variance it has routinely provided to other congregations or commercial interests.
The town has granted another Muslim congregation, Faith Unity, a permit to build a mosque in the township. At public hearings, zoning board members expressed concerns about parking and traffic, as well as the size of the proposed mosque, which is located in a residential area.
Proceedings in the case are currently underway in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.