WASHINGTON — For nearly 10 months, a Muslim congregation in the Philadelphia suburb of Bensalem, Pa., pleaded with township officials to allow the construction of a mosque, paying for expensive traffic studies, repeatedly explaining Islamic practices, revising and re-revising design plans, and then receiving the final word: No.
Then last month, the Justice Department stepped in, charging that the Bensalem Township zoning hearing board had violated federal religious land-use laws by denying the congregation’s application after it had granted zoning exemptions for other religious construction projects.
“We were just asking for our mosque, and we just wanted to be treated like everyone else,” said Imtiaz Chaudhry, a physician and member of the Bensalem Masjid congregation.
As anti-Islamic rhetoric and discrimination surges this presidential election year, the Justice Department is emerging as a bulwark for embattled American Muslims. Vanita Gupta, who heads the department’s civil rights division, said terrorism abroad and at home had led to “an uptick in hate-related incidents against the Muslim community,” a surge not seen since the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“We have to be really vigilant here at the D.O.J. because we’ve seen it happen before,” she said.
The Justice Department’s efforts in a series of cases like the Bensalem suit stand in contrast to the political environment in which the department operates. The Republican presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump, repeatedly denounces “radical Islam,” has declared that he would not allow Muslim immigrants into the country and feuded for days with a Muslim family whose son died in combat while serving in the Army.
A Republican candidate challenging House Speaker Paul D. Ryan in a primary in Wisconsin suggested last week that “Muslim-Americans have been fighting on both sides of the war” on terrorism. Shouting matches over Islam are regular features outside Mr. Trump’s rallies.