A Massachusetts town rejected a Muslim group's plans to build a cemetery on idle land, and now federal prosecutors are poised to open an investigation to determine whether or not the town violated the group's civil rights, the Boston Globe is reporting.
U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz announced Thursday that federal prosecutors plan to look into allegations of religious bias against the central Massachusetts town of Dudley, population about 11,000 people, about 60 miles west of Boston.
Earlier this year, the Islamic Society of Worcester attempted to purchase 55 acres of land -- land that had once been a dairy farm but has sat derelict for decades -- and convert it to a Muslim cemetery. The 55-acre site would contain as many as 16,000 graves, and would be closer to Worcester's Muslim community. Currently, Worcester's Muslims must bury their dead at a Connecticut cemetery, 60 miles away.
The Dudley town government denied the group's request. Officially, according to a March 28 Boston Globe report, the reasons for the denial are concerns about traffic, noise, vandalism, and possible water contamination (traditionally, Muslims do not embalm bodies or bury their dead in coffins, according to Fox News).
But federal prosecutors believe that religious bias may have played a role in the town's refusal, and statements made by townsfolk during meetings and hearings on the matter seem to back up that belief.
One resident said he was concerned about having to listen to "crazy music" -- a reference to the traditional Muslim call to prayer, which can sound odd to people more used to Western music.
Another resident said that the inconvenience local Muslims might face in having to drive 60 miles to the nearest cemetery "pales in comparison to the time needed to ship an American soldier's body home from Afghanistan."
Jason Talerman, a lawyer representing the Islamic Society, said he'd been shocked at what he calls the "bigotry" he'd heard in fighting for his clients' proposed cemetery.
"I have never been in a room so packed with so many people who just have a visceral reaction to a project, the only root of which could be distrust, fear, and bigotry... I think it's a reflection of the mood of the country in this unfortunate political season. People feel empowered to express these things."To be fair, there were other, non-Islamic-related concerns raised about the cemetery as well. Neighbor Shaun Gelinas, for example, is concerned about the effect the cemetery will have on the way of life in a rural area. And Town Administrator Greg Balukonis is concerned about the town having a significant expense that will bring neither jobs nor tax revenue to the community.
For Amjad Bhatti, the president of the Islamic Society of Worcester, he views the proposed cemetery site as his final resting place some day. And he's appalled at having to fight so hard to get it.
"We belong to this state. We belong to America. Of course, it hurts."
In a statement, U.S. Attorney Ortiz said that if religious bias played a role in blocking the proposed cemetery, then the civil rights of area Muslims have been violated.
"We are committed to protecting the rights of Americans of all faiths. All Americans have the right to worship and to bury their loved ones in accordance with their religious beliefs, free from discrimination."
[Image via Shutterstock/Sinan Isakovic]