The U.S. Department of Justice is suing Stafford County, claiming it blocked the creation of what would have been a Muslim-owned cemetery in the county.
The DOJ says the county violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act — RLUIPA — a federal law that protects religious institutions from discriminatory land-use regulations. The lawsuit alleges the county enacted overly restrictive zoning regulations that prevented the All Muslim Association of America (AMAA) from developing the cemetery, which would have been constructed on 29 acres of land the AMAA had purchased on Garrisonville Road in North Stafford.
The DOJ complaint which was filed in the Eastern District of Virginia alleges that the county passed an ordinance in 2016 that blocked the AMAA from constructing their cemetery. The original ordinance was based on standards set by the Virginia Department of Health that no cemeteries could be within 100 feet from private wells and certain streams. The AMAA had complied with all state and local ordinances necessary for the cemetery at that time.
The allegation then goes on to state that Stafford County after learning of the Association’s plans passed an ordinance that pushed the recommended distance from 100 to 900 feet. This effectively put the plans for the cemetery out of compliance and is regarded as far more restrictive than the VDH’s original standard.
“…this requirement is far more restrictive than the Virginia Department of Health’s 100-foot distancing standard, has no legitimate health justification, imposes a substantial burden on the Association’s religious exercise, and is not narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling governmental interest,” stated United States Attorney G. Zachary Terwilliger in a press release.
Multiple homes that draw water from individual wells sit around where the cemetery would have been located.
The complaint seeks injunctive relief, including a court order that the county allows the Association to build its cemetery in conformity with the prior ordinance.
“The United States of America must and will remain a nation committed to the right of all people to practice their faith free from unjustified governmental restrictions. Indeed, this nation exists to provide sanctuary to people seeking the religious freedom that is too often denied in other parts of the world, and the Department of Justice is committed to protecting the fundamental right of people of all faiths to practice their religion free from illegal governmental interference,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division. “That right protects the freedom of faith communities to use their land for religious purposes, including for cemeteries, houses of worship, and religious schools.”
This comes off the heels of a lawsuit filed by the AMAA against Stafford County and its Board of Supervisors where they allege, in a press release, that Stafford demonstrated a bias in favor of Christian cemeteries and against Muslim ones.
“The Department of Justice has recognized that Stafford County has violated federal law by denying us the right to develop a cemetery on our property. Their lawsuit affirms that religious liberty may not be denied to any person or group. The All Muslim Association of America wishes to build our cemetery to ensure that people are buried according to their religious beliefs. As our current cemetery runs out of space I hope Stafford County finally listens to us and allows us to bury our dead, just as anyone else in the county can,” states AMAA Board Member Mossadaq Chughtai in the press release.
Stafford County officials declined to comment for this story.