Stafford County to Allow Islamic Cemetery in Response to Justice Department Lawsuit
ALEXANDRIA, VA (STL.News) The Justice Department filed a notice to dismiss its Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) lawsuit against Stafford County because the County repealed ordinances that prevented the All Muslim Association of America (AMAA) from developing a religious cemetery for persons of the Islamic faith.
The original complaint, filed in June 2020, alleged that Stafford County violated RLUIPA when it enacted an ordinance in December 2016 that prevented the AMAA from developing an Islamic cemetery. County officials had previously confirmed that the proposed cemetery was a permitted use of the property. The ordinance imposed new requirements, unsupported by any legitimate health or safety concerns, that the County knew the AMAA could not meet. After the United States filed the lawsuit, the County replaced the ordinance with another one that also imposed unreasonable constraints on the group’s ability to build a religious cemetery.
In October 2020, the County repealed the second ordinance as well and replaced it with one that allows for the establishment of cemeteries by right in the zoning district where the AMAA’s property is located and removes other restrictions specific to cemeteries. This latest action allowed the AMAA to file its site plan application, which the County approved on July 9, enabling the organization to develop its cemetery. As a result, the Justice Department filed a notice to dismiss its RLUIPA lawsuit against Stafford County.
“RLUIPA protects people of all faiths in their right to exercise their religion,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “The Department of Justice will continue to vigorously enforce RLUIPA—through litigation if necessary—against zoning regulations that unreasonably burden religious exercise, including by restricting a religious group’s right to bury its dead in accordance with religious rituals and customs.”
The Notice of Dismissal filed today describes additional steps the County undertook to comply with RLUIPA after the department notified the County of its investigation. For example, the County has implemented an internal procedure to address complaints by any person who believes that the County may have violated RLUIPA, provided RLUIPA training to County employees who are responsible for implementing and enforcing zoning and land use regulations, posted notices of its obligations to comply with RLUIPA on several County website pages, and placed RLUIPA notices in land use application documents.
In a private settlement between the County and AMAA, Stafford County agreed to pay $500,000 in damages to the AMAA.
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.