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Stafford supervisors vote to settle costly Muslim cemetery case
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Stafford supervisors vote to settle costly Muslim cemetery case

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Muslim Cemetery

Aftabjan ‘John’ Khan, a member of All Muslim Association of America, stands on the property of a former Garrisonville Road driving range intended to be a Muslim cemetery on Oct. 23, 2017.

Stafford County supervisors have agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by the All Muslim Association of America claiming supervisors engaged in discrimination by denying a proposed cemetery on Garrisonville Road.

The county will pay the AMAA $500,000 and approve the cemetery.

After spending more than $390,000 in legal fees defending the county’s actions since the lawsuit began, supervisors voted 4–2 to approve the settlement payment Tuesday. Supervisors Meg Bohmke and Crystal Vanuch voted no, and Supervisor Tinesha Allen was absent.

The lawsuit, filed by the AMAA and the U.S. Department of Justice, claimed the Stafford supervisors’ decision to create more restrictive rules for new cemeteries was “discriminatory, arbitrary and imposes a substantial and impermissible burden on the exercise of religious freedom.”

Melanie Yanez, special counsel with Milibank, the law firm representing the AMAA, declined to comment Friday on the supervisors’ decision.

Attorneys for the AMAA alleged the campaign to change the cemetery ordinance in 2016 was spearheaded by Vanuch, who lives across the street from the AMAA’s property and was chairwoman of Stafford’s Planning Commission at the time.

In June of that year, after hearing about plans for a new cemetery on property that was once a golf driving range, a resident who lives near the site sent an email to then-Rock Hill District Supervisor Wendy Maurer expressing concern about the impact on his well water.

At that time, state code restricted cemeteries within 900 feet of wells that supply public water. The resident wrote Maurer asking why the same standard did not apply to private wells.

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In an email to Maurer on June 21, 2016, Stafford legislative affairs officer Anthony Toigo wrote that he checked with the director of the Rappahannock Area Health District and concluded that as long as there was at least 100 feet between the homeowner’s well and the cemetery, it would pose no risk to public health.

The following day, Vanuch wrote in an email: “This certainly doesn’t address the constituent’s question.”

Vanuch wrote to Maurer and suggested setting up a meeting with the county attorney about revising the ordinance.

On Nov. 9, 2016, the county’s Planning Commission voted 6–0 to recommend adoption of a new cemetery ordinance banning cemeteries within 900 feet of public drinking sources or private wells, which both Maurer and Vanuch had advocated for. On Dec. 13, 2016, the revised ordinance was passed by supervisors, 7–0.

The lawsuit noted that then-Supervisor Jack Cavalier described the hearing and the vote on the ordinance as a “sham,” and stated that, “Both current and former supervisors have told me they have never seen such a spectacle.”

The AMAA said it was unaware of the new ordinance being passed and continued to make payments on the property, making the final payment in April 2017. AMAA officials said they were not informed of the new ordinance until they approached county officials to begin the cemetery development process that fall.

The lawsuit called the county’s decision to revise its cemetery ordinance in 2016 as discriminatory and arbitrary, and alleged the county and its supervisors adopted a stricter ordinance than required by the state “to preclude a Muslim association from building a cemetery on land zoned for that purpose.”

AMAA, a Virginia-based nonprofit organization, provides low-cost burial and funeral services to Muslims in the region, particularly those who need financial assistance or lack close family. It has long operated a cemetery on Brooke Road in Stafford, which has reached capacity.

“We are running out of space and we desperately need this new cemetery,” said AMAA board member Mossadaq Chughtai. “All we want to do is help people without means get a burial in accordance with their faith.”

James Scott Baron:

540/374-5438

jbaron@freelancestar.com

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I spent 23 years in the Navy in media relations and as a reporter. Prior to coming to The Free Lance-Star in 2019, I volunteered with a local non-profit that helps formerly incarcerated people transition back into society. I'm also an avid motorcyclist.

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