Overnight stay in a place of worship

by Zia
(Upper Darby, PA, USA)

Visitor Question Our mosque sits in a commercial district and received zoning approval as a place of worship. The application was simple, and it states that zoning was requested for a place of worship. Building and Occupancy permits were received.

Muslims pray their congregational prayer before dawn and night prayer not too far from midnight. Sometimes worship can continue through the night. In the course of the night, some congregants or visiting congregants may take rest during the night in the mosque. They may bring along a sleeping bag and take rest in it in the premises in other than the main prayer hall. This does not disturb others. There have been no complaints from neighbors regarding this, but some of the Mosque's members who do not like the practice are voicing opposition.

Can the town restrict use of the premises saying that overnight stay is not allowed by zoning, although no hours of the Mosque's operation were specified in the zoning application or approval? Overnight stay in the Mosque is a part of the worship regimen at times, especially, in the weekends.

Editors Reply: Any comments we make about zoning really have to be compared to the actual language in the zoning ordinance and in any approvals from the city you have received.

However, in general it seems to us that taking a sleeping bag into a space in order to rest overnight does not constitute residence. No doubt it would be "residing" in a place that would be a violation of your zoning if residential use is not permitted in the zoning district in which your mosque is located. (Many times residential use is permitted even in a district that is called a commercial zoning district.)

We suspect that the city quite correctly gave you a permit for this location, even if the city was aware of the possibility of overnight sleeping, on the theory that the U.S. Supreme Court has been very clear that cities must treat each religion equally.

However, we wouldn't want to assure you that the city would not take action against the mosque. We aren't aware of any Christian or Jewish practices that would be comparable, so simple lack of familiarity with the idea that worship might continue throughout the night might mean that an enforcement officer would take an interest in the issue if it is brought to the city's attention. Then add the possibility of bias against Muslims to the general lack of familiarity with the idea, and there could be some trouble.

Our best advice to you would be to seek unity within your own congregation on this issue. Then if there are complaints, you will be prepared to deal with them by speaking with one voice. Maintaining good relationships with the neighbors also is a strong defensive strategy in this situation.

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