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The Justice Department on Thursday announced that it is dismissing its Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) lawsuit against Stafford County, Virginia, officials announced.

In exchange, the County repealed ordinances that prevented the All Muslim Association of America (AMAA) from developing a religious cemetery for persons of the Islamic faith, approved the AMAA’s site plan for the cemetery, officials stated.

In addition and as part of this settlement with the Justice Department, the county agreed to pay $500,000, officials stated.

The notice of dismissal, which was filed today in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, describes additional steps the County undertook to comply with RLUIPA after the department notified the County of its investigation.

For example, the County has implemented an internal procedure to address complaints by any person who believes that the County may have violated RLUIPA, provided RLUIPA training to County employees who are responsible for implementing and enforcing zoning and land use regulations, posted notices of its obligations to comply with RLUIPA on several County website pages, and placed RLUIPA notices in land use application documents.

“RLUIPA protects people of all faiths in their right to exercise their religion,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “The Department of Justice will continue to vigorously enforce RLUIPA — through litigation if necessary — against zoning regulations that unreasonably burden religious exercise, including by restricting a religious group’s right to bury its dead in accordance with religious rituals and customs.”       

The complaint, filed in June 2020, alleged that Stafford County violated RLUIPA when it enacted an ordinance in December 2016 that prevented the AMAA from developing an Islamic cemetery; County officials had previously confirmed that the proposed cemetery was a permitted use at this property.

The ordinance imposed new requirements, unsupported by any legitimate health or safety concerns, that the County knew the AMAA could not meet.

After federal prosecutors sued, the County replaced the ordinance with another one, but it, too, imposed unreasonable constraints on the group’s ability to build a religious cemetery.

In October 2020, the County repealed the second ordinance as well, and replaced it with one that allows for the establishment of cemeteries as a permitted use, without the approval of the County, in the zoning district where the AMAA’s property is located and removes other restrictions specific to cemeteries.

RLUIPA is a federal law that protects religious institutions from unduly burdensome or discriminatory land use regulations. 

In June 2018, the Justice Department announced its Place to Worship Initiative, which focuses on RLUIPA’s provisions that protect the rights of houses of worship and other religious institutions to worship on their land. 

More information is available at www.justice.gov/crt/placetoworship.

Individuals who believe they have been subjected to discrimination in land use or zoning decisions may contact the Civil Rights Division Housing and Civil Enforcement Section at (833) 591-0291, or may submit a complaint through the complaint portal on the Place to Worship Initiative website. More information about RLUIPA, including questions and answers about the law and other documents, may be found at http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/hce/rluipaexplain.php.

By Raul

Raul Hernandez is a former journalist. He has worked as a newspaper reporter for more than 30 years at the El Paso Herald-Post, El Paso Times, Press Enterprise in Riverside, California and the Ventura County Star in California. He was a court reporter for more than 20 years.

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