The United States Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit against Stafford County, Virginia for allegedly violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) by ratifying overly restrictive zoning regulations that prohibit an Islamic organization from developing a religious cemetery on a piece of land it had purchased for the purpose.

"Honoring and burying the dead is a sacred religious act for many faith traditions," G. Zachary Terwilliger, US Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said. RLUIPA is a federal law that provides protection to religious organizations from unduly oppressive or discriminatory land-use regulations.

Obstructing The Development of A Cemetery

Macau Muslim Cemetery
Representational Picture Wikimedia Commons

According to the complaint, in 2016 the county allegedly passed an ordinance that prevented the All Muslim Association of America from building an Islamic cemetery on a piece of land that spans across 29 acres and is owned by it. During the purchase of the property, the association complied with all the mandatory state and local requirements to use the land for a cemetery.

However, upon gleaning the association's intentions, the county amended an ordinance that requires cemeteries to be farther than 900 feet from certain types of streams and private wells. Thereby, obstructing the development of a cemetery on the rightfully acquired property.

Ordinance Challenged

The ordinance, however, has been challenged by the DOJ's complaint, which alleges that the restriction imposed by the county is more than restrictive than the Virginia Department of Health's 100-foot distancing standard.

Therefore, the complaint maintains that the ordinance does not hold a legitimate health justification, inflicts a significant burden on the association's religious exercise, and is not narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling governmental interest. The complaint has sought injunctive relief, which includes a court order directing the county to permit the association to build the cemetery in conformity with the prior ordinance.

"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," Eric Dreiband, Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Division, said.