The U.S. Department of Justice announced Friday that it has a lawsuit against Stafford County challenging “overly restrictive zoning regulations” that blocked the creation of a Muslim cemetery.
The suit claims that the county is in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law that protects religious institutions from unduly burdensome or discriminatory land use regulations.
The All Muslim Association of America, a Virginia-based nonprofit, planned to develop a cemetery on property it owns off Garrisonville Road in North Stafford. Its cemetery off Brooke Road has reached capacity.
In June 2016, a Stafford resident who lives across the street from the Garrisonville property learned of the association’s plans and emailed the Board of Supervisors with concerns about the effect of a cemetery on his well water.
At that time, state code restricted cemeteries within 900 feet of wells that supply public water and the resident wondered why the same restriction did not apply to private well water.
On Nov. 9, 2016, the county Planning Commission voted 6–0 to recommend adoption of a new cemetery ordinance banning cemeteries within 900 feet of public drinking sources or private wells and the revised ordinance was passed by supervisors 7–0 the following month.
A lawsuit filed earlier this month by AMAA against the Board of Supervisors notes that some supervisors at the time described the process as rushed and “totally out of the normal order.”
AMAA claims it was not made aware of the new ordnance and continued to make payments on the property. When it learned of the new ordnance, it petitioned the county to revise it.
The Justice Department’s suit alleges that Stafford’s 900-foot zoning 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 complaint asks the court to order the county to allow the association to build its cemetery under the requirements of the prior ordinance.
“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 Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a press release.
Stafford Community Engagement Director Andrew Spence said county officials were still reviewing the lawsuit and had no comment Friday.