Federal prosecutors launched an investigation into whether the central Massachusetts town of Dudley violated civil rights law by blocking an Islamic group from purchasing land to use as a Muslim cemetery, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz’s Office said in a statement.
The probe will look to determine whether the town violated the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester’s right to religious exercise by placing unreasonable barriers to the purchase, Ortiz’s office said.
“We are committed to protecting the rights of Americans of all faiths,” Ortiz said in a statement. “All Americans have the right to worship and to bury their loved ones in accordance with their religious beliefs, free from discrimination.”
The Islamic Society of Worcester had attempted to purchase 55 acres of vacant farmland near Dudley that they said would accommodate up to 16,000 graves, The Boston Globe reported in March.
The religious group currently buries its dead at Enfield, Conn., a distant 60-mile drive from Worcester. The non-profit group agreed to purchase the property for $285,000, and presented its plan to the town board for approval.
But the plans sparked a harsh backlash from residents, who said they were concerned about traffic and contamination of the local water supply. In addition, much of the criticism and heated rhetoric around the issue featured an undercurrent of anti-Muslim bias, said Jason Talerman, a lawyer representing the Islamic Society.
“Every time I open my mouth, there are boos and hisses in the background,” Talerman said. “It seems to be OK right now to bash Muslims.”
The town eventually rejected the Islamic Society’s plans to purchase the land. The Islamic Society, in turn, filed a civil suit against Dudley in Massachusetts Land Court, alleging that their civil rights were violated.
In a statement, Dudley town administrator Greg Balukonis said that they were aware of the investigation and that attorneys for the two sides recently met to discuss a possible settlement on the land court case.
“The Dudley Board of Selectmen welcomes this investigation as an opportunity to show that the Town’s zoning and land use practices do not violate any religious rights of the Islamic Society, nor do such practices discriminate against any assembly or institution on the basis of religion or religious denomination.”