Milbank LLP, on behalf of its client nonprofit religious burial organization All Muslim Association of America, Inc. (“AMAA”), successfully resolved a nearly five-year dispute with Stafford County, Virginia and its board of supervisors (“the County”). The case—brought in federal court in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia—concerned the County’s repeated attempts to block AMAA’s construction of a religious cemetery. Milbank partnered in the litigation with civil rights organization Muslim Advocates.
In December 2016, in a rushed and unusual process, the County adopted a new cemetery ordinance that imposed extreme distance requirements between cemeteries and private wells or perennial streams. The ordinance effectively precluded AMAA from developing a Muslim cemetery on land it had previously purchased after confirming with the County that the land that was zoned for cemetery use by-right. After the County denied AMAA a variance, Milbank and Muslim Advocates commenced a lawsuit in mid-2020. The US Department of Justice filed its own lawsuit against the County shortly thereafter. The lawsuits alleged that the County violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 and the United States and Virginia constitutions.
In the face of this litigation, the County revised the cemetery ordinance to reduce the setbacks and to exempt from the setbacks any “churchyard” cemeteries. Milbank and Muslim Advocates argued that the amendment was not enough and, in fact, by exempting “churchyard” cemeteries highlighted the discriminatory nature of the County’s actions. Confronted with amended complaints that continued the litigation, the County repealed the ordinance altogether in October 2020. Despite this significant victory for AMAA, the County indicated an intent to misapply Virginia’s neighbor consent requirements, in direct conflict with the County’s prior practice. After further litigation, the County announced in December 2020 that it would not so enforce the consent requirements. AMAA subsequently submitted its cemetery site plan, which the County approved in July 2021.
Under the terms of the settlement, entered September 22, 2021, the County will not delay or hinder any applications or requests related to the cemetery’s establishment. It will also compensate AMAA for its damages, paying $500,000.
“It is incredibly important for Muslims to be buried in accordance with our faith and AMAA’s mission is to help people without means accomplish that. It is also our duty as Muslims to serve our community. Without a new cemetery, we would be unable to fulfill that sacred duty,” said Mossadaq Chughtai, board member of the All Muslim Association of America. “Hopefully, we can put this whole ordeal behind us and begin construction knowing that religious liberty has prevailed. We hope that our fight allows all people, regardless of their faith, to be able to do the same in Stafford County. We are grateful for Milbank and Muslim Advocates’ work and we will be talking about it in our community and in our living rooms for years to come.”
The Milbank team representing AMAA pro bono is led by Litigation & Arbitration partner Tawfiq Rangwala and special counsel Melanie Westover Yanez and includes associates Hannah Blazek, Monica Arnold, Courtney Irons, Morgan Mason, Vanessa Gonzalez-Ahmed, Julie Wolf, Riah Kim, Mike Frieda and Brett Lowe.
“We are pleased to have reached this settlement with Stafford County and its Board of Supervisors,” said Mr. Rangwala. “For years, the County has obstructed what is clearly a lawful exercise of religious freedom and this settlement is an important acknowledgment and formal agreement to no longer interfere with the constitutional rights of AMAA.”
“We are grateful that we were able to achieve this outcome for AMAA. Through this team effort we were able to secure for AMAA the ability to develop the much-needed religious cemetery for members of the Muslim community and, on top, compensation for the damages suffered through the years-long struggle,” added Ms. Yanez.