WASHINGTON — The Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Stafford County for alleged violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) against an Islamic institution.
The suit centers around what the DOJ says are "overly restrictive zoning regulations" that have prohibited the All Muslim Association of America from developing a religious cemetery on land it owns. The group had originally bought the land for the purpose of creating the cemetery and honoring the dead.
“Honoring and burying the dead is a sacred religious act for many faith traditions,” G. Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia said. “The complaint that was filed in this case demonstrates this office’s commitment to ensuring that those of all faiths are not substantially burdened by improper local government actions in practicing their religious rituals.”
This suit dates back to 2016 when Stafford County passed an ordinance that blocked the All Muslim Association of America from developing an Islamic cemetery on a 29-acre parcel of land that it owns.
When the land was bought by the All Muslim Association of America, they complied with the regulations in the county and state. But the DOJ suit says things changed once the county heard about the plans.
The DOJ alleges that the county amended its ordinance to require cemeteries to be no closer than 900 feet from private wells and certain types of streams, which prevented the association from using its property as a cemetery.
The amended ordinance of 900 feet is nine times more than the state ordinance, which only requires a 100-foot separation from private wells and certain types of streams.
If the DOJ is successful, the All Muslim Association of America will be able to build its cemetery off of the old ordinance for the county, and not have to adhere to the 900-foot rule.
“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," Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division said. "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."
RLUIPA is a federal law that protects religious institutions from unduly burdensome or discriminatory land-use regulations. In June 2018, the Justice Department announced its Place to Worship Initiative, which focuses on RLUIPA’s provisions that protect the rights of houses of worship and other religious institutions to worship on their land. More information is available here.
The All Muslim Association of America has spoken on the issue between its self and Stafford County.