The Justice Department announced today that it has dismissed its Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) lawsuit against Stafford County, Virginia, because it has achieved the discharge sought in the case. In particular, in response to the department’s complaint, the county overturned ordinances preventing the All Muslim Association of America (AMAA) from establishing a religious cemetery for persons of Islamic faith, approved the AMAA’s site plan for the cemetery, and approved in a private one Settlement with AMAA to settle the AMAA’s dispute agreed to pay AMAA $ 500,000 in damages.
The dismissal notice filed today in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia describes additional steps the county has taken to comply with RLUIPA after the department notified the county of its investigation. For example, the county has implemented an internal process to handle complaints from people who believe that the county has violated RLUIPA, RLUIPA offers training for county employees who are responsible for the implementation and enforcement of zoning and land use regulations and will publish notices of its obligations to comply with RLUIPA on multiple pages of the county website and place RLUIPA notices in land use application documents.
“RLUIPA protects people of all faiths in their right to practice their religion,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s civil rights division. “The Justice Department will continue to vigorously enforce RLUIPA – through litigation, if necessary – against zoning regulations that unduly burden religious practice, including restricting the right of a religious group to bury their dead in accordance with religious rituals and customs.”
The complaint, filed in June 2020, alleged that Stafford County violated RLUIPA when it issued an ordinance in December 2016 that prevented the AMAA from establishing an Islamic cemetery; District officials had previously confirmed that the proposed cemetery was an acceptable use on this property. The ordinance introduced new requirements that were not supported by legitimate health or safety concerns that the county knew the AMAA could not meet. After the United States sued, the county replaced the ordinance with another, but it, too, inappropriately limited the group’s ability to establish a religious cemetery. In October 2020, the county also repealed the second ordinance, replacing it with one that legally allows the establishment of cemeteries in the zoned district in which the AMAA’s property is located and removes other cemetery-specific restrictions. This latest move allowed the AMAA to submit its site plan application, which the county approved on July 9, so the organization could finally develop its cemetery.
RLUIPA is a federal law that protects religious institutions from inappropriately burdensome or discriminatory land use regulations. In June 2018, the Justice Department announced its Place to Worship Initiative, which focuses on RLUIPA’s provisions protecting the right of places 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 discriminated against in land use or zoning decisions can contact the Civil Rights Division Housing and Civil Enforcement Section at (833) 591-0291 or file a complaint through the Place to Worship Initiative’s complaints portal Website. For more information on RLUIPA, including questions and answers about the law and other documents, please visit http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/hce/rluipaexplain.php.