The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A Muslim cemetery was finally approved in Virginia. Now bigotry needs a proper burial.

The All Muslim Association of America cemetery, near Fredericksburg, on Nov. 24, 2020. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

A suburban Virginia county south of D.C. recently put a quiet end to a five-year saga in which the odor of Islamophobia grew into a stench as time dragged on. That the events surrounding a proposed Islamic cemetery in Stafford County unfolded under color of local law, and were allowed by county officials to fester for year after year, was more than poor judgment. It has become a sterling example for local governments of how not to deal with minority communities.

Stafford is a diverse place of more than 150,000 people, and the Islamic cemetery in question would not be the county’s first. In fact, the nonprofit All Muslim Association of America (AMAA) had run a small cemetery there for about 20 years when, nearly out of capacity, it bought a new parcel of land in 2016 with plans for a larger cemetery where Muslims of modest means could be laid to rest.

What ensued was an embarrassment to Stafford and a Kafkaesque odyssey for the county’s Muslim community. That it ended, mercifully, with the county’s capitulation — authorities there ceased their attempts to block the proposed cemetery last year, and recently agreed to a $500,000 settlement, without admitting guilt — does not mitigate the gratuitousness of the entire episode, which was a waste of taxpayers’ time and money.

The details of the county’s preposterous rationale in drafting a bespoke new land-use scheme, whose only discernible intent was to impede the new cemetery, are byzantine. Urged on by two landowners — one of them a county Planning Commission member — whose property abutted the tract for the proposed 45-acre cemetery, the county adopted new rules banning cemeteries located within 900 feet, almost the length of three football fields, of any private homeowner’s well used for drinking water. The state standard required a separation of only 100 feet, and there was no science justifying a broader buffer for cemeteries and drinking water sources generally or this parcel in particular.

When AMAA officials found out about the zoning maneuver months after the fact — no one had mentioned the new rule to them, nor solicited their input — they were shocked. Not only had the group not been informed of the change, but county officials had affirmed at the time of the parcel’s purchase that a cemetery could be built there “by right,” with no special zoning approval needed. After the controversy erupted, a state official affirmed that a 100-foot setback was adequate for public health.

Following lawsuits by the Justice Department and advocates representing the AMAA, the county finally repealed its onerous cemetery rules. And this month the AMAA accepted the county’s $500,000 payment to settle the lawsuit. That amount was on top of nearly $400,000 the county had already wasted on litigation.

Construction is expected to begin soon on the new cemetery, under the auspices of the AMAA, which provides low-cost burials and funerals for Muslims in need across the region. Though it ended well, the story also showed that bigotry has yet to be given its proper burial.

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