June 8, 2020

Milbank Represents Muslim Nonprofit in Lawsuit Against a Virginia County for Blocking Construction of Religious Cemetery

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Today, All Muslim Association of America Inc. (“AMAA”) sued the Stafford County Board of Supervisors and Stafford County, Virginia, after the county took extraordinary steps to overhaul its cemetery ordinance to block the development of the group’s religious cemetery. AMAA is a Virginia-based nonprofit religious organization that provides low-cost burial and funeral services to Muslims in the region, particularly those without close family or financial means. The nonprofit is represented by Milbank LLP, Muslim Advocates and HMA Law Firm.

AMAA currently operates a small cemetery in Stafford, Virginia that is nearing capacity. After years of searching for a new, suitable property, the nonprofit purchased a parcel of land in Stafford County that is zoned for cemetery use by-right. In response, the Stafford County Board of Supervisors initiated a rushed and unusual process to rewrite its cemetery ordinance to thwart the Muslim group’s development efforts. The county’s new ordinance:

  • prevented the nonprofit from being able to use its land by imposing new and scientifically unsupported minimum distance requirements between AMAA’s cemetery and certain surrounding water sources;
  • ignored clear guidance from the Virginia Health Department stating that AMAA’s proposed cemetery would create no public health problems; and
  • held hearings on the revised cemetery ordinance that were later described by County Board members as a “sham,” and which included misguided and inflammatory comments from county officials.

Stafford County and the Board of Supervisors have demonstrated a bias in favor of Christian cemeteries and against Muslim cemeteries.  The county’s new ordinance allows “churchyard” cemeteries to bypass a burdensome application process and size restrictions. While the county has applied this “churchyard” designation to Christian cemeteries, it has refused to classify Muslim cemeteries in the same way.

As detailed in an article authored by the editorial board of The Washington Post: “The clearly intended effect of Stafford’s shift was to block the Muslim group’s new cemetery. It has now triggered lawsuits by the Justice Department and advocates representing the Muslim association, who point to civil rights and constitutional violations in Stafford’s actions.”

“The actions taken by Stafford County and the Board of Supervisors violate the law and are discriminatory,” said Tawfiq Rangwala, a partner in Milbank’s Litigation & Arbitration Group. “The county’s decision to ignore the Virginia Health Department’s guidance and amend its ordinance in a way that precludes the exercise of religious freedoms should not be tolerated,” added Milbank Special Counsel, Melanie Westover Yanez.

“We are running out of space and we desperately need this new cemetery,” said Mossadaq Chughtai, AMAA Board Member. “All we want to do is help people without means get a burial in accordance with their faith. We followed all the rules and worked to appease Stafford County, but they still refuse to let us build our cemetery. We have no choice but to ask a court to help us fight for our right to religious freedom.”

“AMAA’s goal is simple: to allow Muslims to bury their loved ones in accordance with their religious beliefs, just as every other religious group in Stafford County can,” said Muslim Advocates Racial Justice Fellow Nabihah Maqbool. 

Milbank represents AMAA pro bono with a team led by Litigation partner Tawfiq Rangwala and special counsel Melanie Yanez, together with associates Vanessa Gonzalez, Sharaf Islam, Hannah Blazek and Ashton Yarnall.