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‘Put it in your back yard. Not mine’: Feds investigating after Mass. town rejects Muslim cemetery

Desiree Moninski stands on land located across from her house in Dudley, Mass., which is the site of a proposed Muslim cemetery. (Elise Amendola/AP)

In February, residents of the Massachusetts town of Dudley gathered for a zoning meeting. According to reports, there was some controversy.

Among the topics discussed was a proposal from an Islamic society. The group asked for a permit to create a Muslim cemetery, according to the Telegram and Gazette.

“I am very against this cemetery going in and don’t see why it has to come to little old Dudley,” one woman said, according to WBUR.

“You want a Muslim cemetery?” another attendee said. “Fine. Put it in your back yard. Not mine.”

His comment was met with applause, according to an Associated Press report.

Ultimately, the town’s zoning board rejected the request from the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester. After the bid was denied, Jay Talerman, an attorney for the Islamic society, filed a lawsuit.

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And now federal officials have decided to get involved.

On Thursday, the Massachusetts U.S. attorney’s office announced that its civil rights unit has opened an investigation into whether Dudley violated the civil rights of the Islamic society.

“We are committed to protecting the rights of Americans of all faiths,” U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz said in a statement. “All Americans have the right to worship and to bury their loved ones in accordance with their religious beliefs, free from discrimination. We are opening this investigation to assess whether there have been violations of federal civil rights laws in connection with the request to establish an Islamic cemetery in Dudley.”

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Talerman said federal officials had been looking into the matter for some time, and the group has been in contact with the U.S. attorney’s office for months. The investigation “indicates this is a really serious issue, when people discriminate against Muslims, or any other religious group,” he said.

In a statement, Dudley officials said they were aware of the investigation, and said attorneys for both sides had met to discuss resolving the suit.

“The Dudley Board of Selectmen welcomes this investigation as an opportunity to show 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 statement read.

Here’s the Boston Globe, with more details of the proposed cemetery, as well as the reaction:

The Islamic organization, which is based in Worcester and buries its dead in Enfield, Conn., signed a purchase-and-sale agreement for the Dudley land in January. Leaders of the society, which serves about 350 families, said this more convenient site would have space for 16,000 graves but that only about 10 to 15 burials would occur each year.
Opposition to the cemetery plan has been intense. Objections have centered on the possibility of increased traffic for the winding, rural road that leads to the site, and on fears that Islamic practice of traditionally burying the dead without coffins could contaminate nearby well water.
Society officials have said they would use vaults for interment and alter their plans to address other concerns. Talerman, however, has said that conciliatory efforts have not worked, and that anti-Muslim bias is driving some of the opposition.

Talerman told The Washington Post that he had worked on a similar issue in the past and that it wasn’t met with this type of backlash. “But then flash forward to an election year, where it seems to be okay to bash Muslims and others, and the thing kind of exploded,” Talerman said.

When asked whether he thought the town’s reaction was a reflection of the 2016 presidential campaign, Talerman said, “The coincidence is somewhat startling.”

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“This is a proposal that doesn’t involve any buildings, any structures of any kind, not even any gravestones, and we’re getting 100 to 200 people yelling and hissing,” Talerman said.

The Islamic society’s lawsuit noted the debate at the February zoning meeting, saying the comments from members of the public were “nearly universally derisive in nature and included a variety of comments that were blatantly biased against the Islamic faith.”

The lawsuit states: “Among the comments were comments that residents didn’t want a Muslim cemetery in their backyard; that the burial practices would disturb residents due to the playing of ‘crazy music’; and nonsensical comparisons of the transport of soldiers killed in Afghanistan to the convenience of a local cemetery serving Muslims in Dudley.”

This is not the first time that a community has pushed back against a Muslim cemetery in the United States. It’s also happened in Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Texas, according to the AP.

In Farmersville, Tex., a city near Dallas, the meetings about a proposed Muslim cemetery grew so heated that an AP story noted some residents were “openly hostile.”

During one of the meetings, an attendee shouted, “You’re not welcome here,” Al Jazeera America reported. “Every place y’all have been, you’ve caused some kind of controversy in the schools, and the government lets y’all have y’all’s way. Well, it’s not going to happen in Farmersville.”

The issue goes beyond the development of burial grounds. Earlier this year, the Justice Department got involved in a case in Bensalem, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia, after township officials there rejected an application for the construction of a mosque, the New York Times reported.

“We were just asking for our mosque, and we just wanted to be treated like everyone else,” Imtiaz Chaudhry, a member of the Bensalem Masjid congregation, told the Times.

Talerman, the attorney for the Islamic center, described his clients as “the epitome of peacefulness and kindness,” almost all of whom were American citizens, professionals and community members.

“They’re frustrated, but they have a strong, principled stance on this,” Talerman said. “They’re gratified to have the support of so many people from all walks of life and religious denominations. And I think that’s buoyed them to a degree. But they’re certainly frustrated and disappointed. But I’m also assuming that it’s not the first time that they have felt discriminated against.”

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