The U.S. Department of Justice has launched an investigation into whether Stafford County leaders discriminated against a Muslim nonprofit by blocking its proposed cemetery on Garrisonville Road.
The federal agency’s Civil Rights Division notified Stafford of the investigation in an April 17 letter obtained by The Free Lance–Star through a Freedom of Information Act request. Shina Majeed, chief of the DOJ’s Housing and Civil Enforcement Section, wrote that the inquiry will “focus on how the county’s zoning law treats religious land uses,” particularly the All Muslim Association of America’s proposed cemetery on 1508 Garrisonville Road.
The letter cites a federal law that includes language prohibiting a “substantial burden on religious exercise absent a compelling justification pursued in the least restrictive means.”
The controversy surrounding the proposed cemetery has been simmering for more than a year.
In December 2016, the Stafford Board of Supervisors—on a recommendation from the Planning Commission—approved changes to the county’s cemetery ordinance that effectively disqualified plans for the Muslim burial ground. Emails obtained by The Free Lance–Star show that concerns about the cemetery’s impact on nearby wells were raised as reasons for the revisions, which require a distance of 900 feet between all cemeteries and private wells.
The ordinance exceeds by nine times the Virginia Department of Health’s regulations, though state law does require a 900-foot setback between cemeteries and public drinking sources.
The Justice Department also referred to Planning Commission member Crystal Vanuch by name in its request for a multitude of documents from the county. Vanuch’s home is across the street from the proposed 45-acre Muslim cemetery, and the agency requested all documents connected to Stafford’s “analysis and investigation as to whether … Vanuch has a conflict of interest.”
John Khan, vice president of the All Muslim Association of America, submitted a conflict-of-interest complaint against Vanuch to Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Olsen on Dec. 1.
Vanuch said in an email Wednesday that she takes “this complaint and false accusation very seriously and there is and never has been any wrong doing on my part or the [county’s] and there is no conflict of interest.” She forwarded a letter to Khan from Olsen, who wrote that Vanuch “does not have a personal interest in the transactions or the business before the Planning Commission relating to the cemetery ordinance” under state law. Vanuch did not violate the Virginia Conflict of Interest Act, he wrote.
Olsen’s letter is dated April 25, nearly five months after Khan made the formal complaint. He sent a copy to Vanuch’s attorney.
Vanuch, who recommended approval of the revised ordinance, belonged to a panel that spearheaded the changes and is now on a subcommittee tasked with revisiting the issue. The subcommittee had not publicly released a recommendation as of Wednesday afternoon.
Some county officials and residents deny accusations of religious bigotry, saying their worry is that the cemetery will contaminate wells. One nearby homeowner who is a Marine veteran said he would oppose any type of cemetery there, even one for service members.
But Khan told the newspaper last year that he believes nobody would have taken issue with a Christian cemetery on the property.
The Justice Department’s letter also mentions the county’s purchase of a 76-acre parcel from the All Muslim Association of America, or AMAA, for $650,000 last year, and requests documents related to that sale. The property is next to the AMAA’s existing cemetery on Brooke Road, and the county apparently bought it to preserve environmentally sensitive land near the Crow’s Nest Natural Area Preserve.
The DOJ’s other requests for information include:
- Documents, including texts and emails, that mention the Muslim nonprofit.
- Documents involving any required distances between private wells and golf courses, campgrounds, parks, equestrian facilities and nurseries, among other operations.
- A list of all cemeteries developed within the last 20 years.
- All applications for cemeteries since 2008.
- Site plans, surveys, architectural drawings and “any other documents” involving Vanuch’s property and homes in Skywood Court.
The county is still gathering that information, an official said. The Justice Department also said it may want to interview certain county officials in the near future.
Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Meg Bohmke and Supervisor Wendy Mauer, whose Rock Hill District includes the proposed cemetery, did not immediately reply to requests for comment.
The Muslim nonprofit purchased the Garrisonville Road property for $800,000 in May 2015, when the county’s ordinance permitted a cemetery there. It opened a cemetery on Brooke Road in 1996, but ran out of plots in April of last year.
Some nearby residents got wind of the plan for a new cemetery in 2016, setting the stage for the stricter requirements.
The Muslim group learned about the new restrictions last year from its attorney, Clark Leming, as it prepared to submit a site plan for the cemetery on Garrisonville Road.
Leming declined to comment on the Justice Department’s investigation.
A Justice Department spokesman wrote in an email that the agency’s policy is to not “confirm or deny the existence or non existence of investigations.”
It’s not the first time the federal agency has intervened in a local case involving a Muslim group.
In Culpeper County, the Board of Supervisors initially denied a zoning permit for a mosque, but reversed that decision last year to settle a religious discrimination lawsuit by the Justice Department.