Rejection of Massachusetts cemetery plan prompts federal probe

(Reuters) - Federal prosecutors will investigate a decision by a Massachusetts town to deny a request by an Islamic group to establish a Muslim cemetery there, the U.S. attorney’s office said on Thursday.

The Islamic Society of Greater Worcester claims local officials placed unreasonable barriers to its plan to open a cemetery in the town of Dudley, ultimately leading to its rejection, U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz for Massachusetts 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,” Ortiz said in the statement.

It was the latest in a string of such incidents amid a “clear rise in anti-Muslim sentiment” across the country, said Ibrahim Hooper, communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, a civil rights and advocacy group.

“Whether (it’s) a mosque, a Muslim school, a cemetery - they’re going to face opposition in today’s society,” Hooper said.

CAIR is considering a request for an investigation in a similar case surrounding denied permits for a mosque in Newton, Georgia, Hooper said.

The U.S. Department of Justice last month filed a lawsuit against a Pennsylvania town, alleging Bensalem Township violated the law when it denied zoning approval to a religious group seeking to build a mosque.

In Massachusetts, the Dudley Board of Selection denied wrongdoing, saying in a statement it “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.”

The town and some of its officials were named in a lawsuit brought by the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester to overturn the denial of the permit, it said.

The group wants to put a cemetery on 55 acres of former farmland, the group’s attorney said in a statement on its website. The Islamic Society of Greater Worcester, which was established in 1978, according to its website, did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

Discussions with the town are ongoing, said Jay Talerman, counsel for the Islamic Society.

“We’re thankful the U.S. attorney has our backs on this one,” said Talerman.

The town will fully cooperate with the investigation, said Dudley Administrator Greg Balukonis in a phone interview, declining to comment further.

The investigation is being conducted by the Civil Rights Unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office.