The Justice Department has filed a lawsuit alleging that Stafford County violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act by enacting overly restrictive zoning regulations prohibiting an Islamic organization from developing a religious cemetery on land it had purchased for that purpose.
“Honoring and burying the dead is a sacred religious act for many faith traditions,” said G. Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. “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.”
The complaint, filed in the Eastern District of Virginia, alleges that the county passed an ordinance in 2016 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 association bought the property, it complied with all of the state and local requirements for use as a cemetery. But after learning of the association’s plans, the county amended its ordinance to require that cemeteries be no closer than 900 feet from private wells and certain types of streams, thus preventing the association from using its property as a cemetery.
The United States’ complaint alleges that 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.
“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.”
The complaint seeks injunctive relief, including a court order that the County allow the Association to build its cemetery in conformity with the prior ordinance.
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 at www.justice.gov/crt/placetoworship.