Dispute Over Proposed Muslim Cemetery in Massachusetts Town Deepens

Boston -- A dispute over a proposed Muslim cemetery in a small Central Massachusetts town is deepening, as the state attorney general and the U.S. attorney’s office have intervened, warning local officials they could be violating civil-rights laws.

Dudley, a rural town of about 11,000 on the Connecticut border, has faced off against the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester, which wants to build a Muslim cemetery on former farmland there.

Town officials have cited concerns about the scale of the project, potential traffic issues and its environmental impact, in questioning the appropriateness of the cemetery.

The Islamic Society says anti-Muslim prejudice is at play. “This is 100% fear and bias,” said Jason Talerman, a lawyer for the Islamic Society, which is based in the city of Worcester and runs a mosque about 30 miles from Dudley.

Gary Brackett, a lawyer for Dudley, on Friday denied the town is biased against Muslims. “The same concerns would have been raised whether it was a Catholic, or Jewish, or Protestant cemetery,” he said.

Similar tension over Muslim burial grounds has surfaced in other states. The American Civil Liberties Union, the nation’s largest public-interest law group, says anti-Muslim sentiment has grown amid fears of terrorism, leading to efforts in some places to block zoning permits for Muslim organizations.

The Islamic Society of Greater Worcester says it serves more than 350 families, many of whom bury relatives at a Muslim cemetery in Connecticut that is filling up. The society is looking to establish the new burial ground on 55 acres of land it wants to buy in Dudley.

The group said much of the property is wetlands and that up to 12 acres of it would be used for the cemetery. The grounds would hold 10 to 12 burials a year and could incorporate as many as 10,000 plots over time, Mr. Talerman said. An early estimate suggested there could be as many as 16,000 plots, but that was scaled back to allow for more natural buffers around the burial ground, he said.

The Islamic Society is still working with the seller on the potential purchase of the land but won’t be required to buy it if the cemetery permit doesn’t come through, Mr. Talerman said.

After the Islamic Society applied for a permit in January, local officials held public hearings that turned heated. Residents voiced concerns about noise, traffic hazards and the impact of buried bodies on wells. “You want a Muslim cemetery? Fine. Put it in your backyard. Not mine,” one man testified, to applause, at a hearing in February, according to WBUR, a Boston public radio station.

In June, the town denied the group’s application for a special-use permit for technical reasons, saying the Islamic Society lacked standing to buy the land and that the town had the right of first refusal to purchase the property. The town has since said it won’t try to buy the property.

The Islamic Society then sued Dudley in a Massachusetts state court in July, alleging the society’s constitutional rights were being violated. That case is pending.

Meanwhile, the dispute has drawn scrutiny from top officials in the state. In August, the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, Carmen Ortiz, said her office would investigate whether Dudley had infringed on the Islamic Society’s “right to religious exercise” by placing “unreasonable barriers” on the cemetery proposal.

Dudley’s lawyer Mr. Brackett said Ms. Ortiz’s investigation has begun. He insisted the town hasn’t violated any civil-rights laws.

Mr. Brackett said Dudley believes it could still grant permission to the Islamic Society for the cemetery but that the town would then possibly put the permit issue up for a townwide vote.

A December 1 letter sent by Massachusetts State Attorney General Maura Healey’s office, however, cautioned Dudley about such a move. Under state law, a community cannot “prohibit, regulate or restrict the use of land or structures for religious purposes,” the letter said.

Dudley’s counsel Mr. Brackett said the town is reviewing the letter.