Earlier this year, the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester purchased 55 acres of farmland in the city of Dudley, Massachusetts, to use as a Muslim cemetery. However, their proposal was denied by town officials due to alleged “traffic and environmental concerns.” In response, the group filed a lawsuit against the town in Massachusetts Land Court claiming that the denial was based on anti-Muslim bias, and that town officials had engaged in discriminatory practices that violated the group’s religious rights.
Town officials released a statement denying the allegation, stating that the “Town's zoning and land use practices do not violate any religious rights of the Islamic Society, nor do such practices discriminate against any assembly or institution on the basis of religion or religious denomination." The Town further claimed that town meetings were held where residents of Dudley voiced their concerns about possible problems that could arise from the cemetery. Between the reasons stated were noise concerns, vandalism, an increase in traffic on the road where the cemetery would be built, and potential contamination of groundwater because “Muslims traditionally do not embalm bodies and bury their dead without coffins.”
Last August, Federal prosecutors launched an investigation to determine whether the town’s denial rose to discriminatory treatment under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). However, the question remains, is the town of Dudley basing their decision on anti-Muslim bias? More importantly, are they legally allowed to do so?
Unfortunately, Dudley isn’t the first town to resist construction of Muslim cemeteries. Carlisle, Pennsylvania; Farmington, Minnesota; and Farmersville, Texas, are among some of the Towns that have pushed back against Muslim cemeteries. The number of Department of RLUIPA investigations involving institutions related to Islam has increased 38% since September 2010.
In a similar case United States v. City of Lilburn from 2011, the Department filed a suit against the City of Lilburn, Georgia for “its unlawful conduct in violation of RLUIPA.” The suit alleged that the City of Lilburn changed its ordinance to prevent the Shia Muslim community to build a new mosque at its current location. “The suit included allegations that the city’s denial of approval was the result of bias against Muslims and that other similarly sized and situated places of worship had been permitted.” Ultimately, they reached a consent decree that allowed the Shia Muslim community to build a mosque.
Since implemented, RLUIPA has “protect[ed] individuals, houses of worship, and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning and landmarking laws.” It provides judicial relief for individuals whose rights are violated, and also “authorizes the Department of Justice to bring suit to uphold people’s rights.” “Section 2(a) of RLUIPA bars zoning restrictions that impose a ‘substantial burden’ on religious exercise, unless the government can show that it has a ‘compelling interest’ for imposing the restriction and that it is the least restrictive way for the government to further that interest.”
To successfully argue that Dudley violated RLUIPA, the Department has to prove that the regulation (1) imposes a substantial burden, (2) on “religious exercise”, (3) of a person, institution or assembly. There is no doubt that the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester satisfy prong 2 and 3, but whether a substantial burden exist is a relative determination. “[W]hether a given burden is substantial depends on its magnitude in relation to the needs and resources of the religious organization in question.” It seems that the religious group is currently significantly burdened because it has to bury it’s dead a distant 60-mile drive from Worcester. The Muslim cemetery “would make it much easier for Muslims in the area to bury and visit their dead.” It is unclear whether Dudley will let Islamic Society of Greater Worcester build their Muslim cemetery, but what is clear, is that both groups are not going down without a fight.