Bensalem Masjid, a Muslim congregation in the Philadelphia suburb of Bensalem, Pennsylvania, spent close to a year negotiating with township officials to allow the construction of a mosque. The congregation explained how the mosque would be used, paid for impact studies and revised the building’s design several times, but in the end was turned down.
The congregation felt that it was being unlawfully discriminated against, and petitioned the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate, which it did.
The Justice Department found that, in the past, the township’s zoning hearing board granted variances to an Indian Orthodox church, two Hindu temples and several faith-based private schools, among other religious institutions.
However, when the Bensalem Masjid congregation applied for the same type of variance, it did not get one. The congregation’s request was officially denied because zoning hearing board members said they thought the mosque should ask for the property to be officially rezoned — a lengthy process that other religious groups had not been asked to undertake.
As a result of its investigation, the Justice Department has charged that the Bensalem Township zoning hearing board had violated federal religious land-use laws by denying the Muslims’ application.
It is no secret that anti-Muslim sentiment exists, and it is even understandable that Americans of other faiths may fear that a nearby mosque may be used, as some Muslim houses of worship reportedly have been, for preaching anti-social, even hateful, messages.
If there is reason to think that criminal activity is taking place in any venue, that is what law enforcement is for. But simple fears, in the absence of any evidence for them in a particular case, should play no role in a zoning decision.
There are people who are wary of Orthodox Jews too, and, in fact, there are communities that have tried to prevent increased Orthodox presence by hiding their bigotry behind zoning laws. The 1990s saw a number of other such cases.
Shortly after Rockland County’s Village of Airmont was incorporated in 1991, for instance, it promulgated zoning ordinances prohibiting houses of worship in private homes — a step taken with the clear purpose of making it difficult for Orthodox Jews to reside in the community. “The only reason we formed this village,” one local admitted, “is to keep those Jews from Williamsburg out of here.”
In nearby Ramapo, the Town Supervisor described opposition to an influx of observant Jews starkly: “The motivation of some people is that they do not want the ultra-orthodox or the Hasidim to move in.”
The Planning and Zoning Commission of Beachwood, Ohio, voted to prevent the town’s Orthodox residents from constructing several religious buildings. One of the opponents of the construction explained: “When the Orthodox began moving onto Taylor Road, the non-Orthodox felt they were being pushed out… You didn’t want Beachwood to be a ghetto.”
In Hancock Park, California, zoning officials denied an effort by Orthodox Jews to hold a Shabbos minyan in a private home, which would have enabled the neighborhood’s handicapped and elderly Jews to attend services.
In New Rochelle, New York, when a shul sought a zoning variance to expand, there was local opposition that was widely seen as an effort to keep the local Orthodox community from growing.
When the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach sought to purchase a private school building in the Village of Hewlett Bay Park, one resident explained her opposition: “First they come here with a yeshivah, then they follow with a shul, and then the migration starts.”
More recently, a yeshivah acquired property in Ocean Township, New Jersey, and applied to the Township’s Zoning Board for the necessary zoning variances. Amid virulent resistance to the application, the board dragged out the variance application process for well over a year, ultimately denying the application. There was considerable evidence that what lay behind the denial was a desire to mollify anti-chareidi elements in the community.
It is certainly incumbent upon us to do everything we can to co-exist respectfully and peacefully with our neighbors, to be sensitive to whatever legitimate concerns they may have and to conduct ourselves in a way that will lead to harmonious relations with entrenched communities. At the same time, however, we have rights as do all other American citizens, including Muslim ones, and we must stand guard against efforts to discriminate against us.
Religious groups, no less than racial groups, are entitled to the protection of the law when communities seek to exclude them.