An Islamic organization has sued the small town of Dudley, alleging that the group’s constitutional rights were violated when zoning officials rebuffed its bid to locate a Muslim cemetery on 55 acres of vacant farmland.
The Islamic Society of Greater Worcester accuses the Zoning Board of resorting to questionable 11th-hour maneuvering against the cemetery plan, which has sparked heated rhetoric and accusations of bias.
Despite a string of hearings over several months, the Zoning Board did not determine until June that the Islamic Society lacked standing to seek a special permit for the cemetery. The town has a right of first refusal to buy the property, local officials said.
That decision, according to Islamic Society attorney Jay Talerman, is “a thinly veiled ruse to cover up what we all recognize is the prejudicial treatment of my client.”
Town Administrator Greg Balukonis declined to comment Tuesday on the civil suit, which he said is being reviewed by town counsel. However, Selectman Paul Joseph said the complaint contains “outright lies.”
The suit, filed Friday in Massachusetts Land Court, contends that a special permit never should have been required because a nonprofit religious organization is exempt from zoning regulations.
The society also argues that the town’s insistence on a right of first refusal to buy the property is invalid. That right failed to be triggered because the farmland, which receives special tax privileges, would not be converted to residential, commercial, or industrial property, Talerman said.
Talerman asked the court to “determine that the town and the ZBA have acted with gross negligence, in bad faith, and with malice.”
The Islamic organization, which is based in Worcester and buries its dead in Enfield, Conn., signed a purchase-and-sale agreement for the Dudley land in January. Leaders of the society, which serves about 350 families, said this more convenient site would have space for 16,000 graves but that only about 10 to 15 burials would occur each year.
Opposition to the cemetery plan has been intense. Objections have centered on the possibility of increased traffic for the winding, rural road that leads to the site, and on fears that Islamic practice of traditionally burying the dead without coffins could contaminate nearby well water.
Society officials have said they would use vaults for interment and alter their plans to address other concerns. Talerman, however, has said that conciliatory efforts have not worked, and that anti-Muslim bias is driving some of the opposition.
At a Feb. 4 zoning hearing, Talerman said in the complaint, public reaction was “nearly universally derisive in nature and included a variety of comments that were blatantly biased against the Islamic faith.”
He continued that “nearly every comment of the [Islamic Society] and its representatives was met with boos and other derogatory comments. . . . The ZBA did nothing to quell the multitude of racist and biased comments and, rather, encouraged and entertained an atmosphere which allowed the public to continue to attack” the organization.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts has been monitoring the issue.
“We’ve been watching this for months now and have been very concerned about the tone of the hearings,” said Sarah Wunsch, deputy legal director of the state ACLU. “This sudden decision on the part of the Zoning Board has heightened our concerns about what is really going on here.”
Wunsch said the debate has suffered from a lack of leadership.
“Not everybody is biased, but certainly there was a lot of bias expressed against Muslims” at the hearings, Wunsch said. “When town officials don’t speak out against that and set an example, then it’s important for other officials to do it.”
The society’s suit took particular aim at Joseph, the selectman.
At a hearing on April 7, Talerman said in the complaint, Joseph “stated that the [society’s] current cemetery was a ‘pigsty’ and accused the [society] of engaging in a ‘crusade.’ Both such terms are highly charged and offensive to Muslims, a fact that Mr. Joseph plainly knew.”
When Joseph demanded an apology from the society for voicing concerns about prejudicial treatment, Talerman wrote, “the crowd roared with applause at Mr. Joseph’s tirade.”
Joseph declined to respond specifically until he had conferred with town counsel.
However, he said in an interview, “There’s probably as much fiction in [Talerman’s] ‘facts’ as there is in a John Steinbeck novel.”Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.