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Justice Department sues Virginia county, accusing it of blocking Islamic cemetery

The suit says that Stafford County changed its ordinance and made it far more excessive than state law requires after learning of the group's plans.

The Justice Department on Friday accused a northern Virginia county of enacting "overly restrictive zoning regulations" that blocked a group from establishing an Islamic cemetery on its property.

The federal government filed a civil lawsuit against Stafford County alleging that it violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Virginia said in a statement.

The nonprofit All Muslim Association of America planned to develop an Islamic cemetery on a 29-acre parcel of land. When the nonprofit bought the property, it complied with all state and local requirements, the U.S. attorney's office said.

"But after learning of the Association’s plans, the County amended its ordinance to require that cemeteries be no closer than 900 feet from private wells and certain types of streams, thus preventing the Association from using its property as a cemetery," the U.S. attorney's office said.

The Virginia Department of Health has a 100-foot distancing standard, and the federal government alleges that the excessive restriction has no legitimate health justification and "imposes a substantial burden on the Association’s religious exercise."

The ordinance was adopted after neighbors raised concerns about well contamination, The Associated Press reported.

Andrew Spence, a spokesperson for Stafford County, said in an email Friday night that the county is reviewing the recent release by the Department of Justice and "has no comment at this time."

The All Muslim Association of America has also sued the county over the issue.

It filed a suit against Stafford County this month and accused it of a discriminatory ordinance designed to prevent a Muslim organization from building a cemetery on land zoned for that purpose, according to court records.

An attorney listed as representing the group, also known as AMAA, did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment late Friday.

AMAA is a nonprofit religious organization that provides low-cost burials consistent with Islamic religious beliefs, according to the suit. The suit says its current cemetery is nearing capacity and it needs additional burial space.

The Justice Department is seeking a court order allowing the group to build its cemetery in compliance with the ordinance before it was changed.

"The United States of America must and will remain a nation committed to the right of all people to practice their faith free from unjustified governmental restrictions," Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Justice Department's civil rights division said in a statement.

Stafford County has a population of around 145,000 and its seat is around 40 miles southwest of Washington, D.C.