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US attorney’s office to investigate dispute over Islamic cemetery in Dudley

The site where the Islamic Society of Worcester wants to build a cemetery. Jim Davis/Globe Staff/File

US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said Thursday she had opened an investigation into whether the town of Dudley violated the religious freedom of area Muslims by blocking the construction of an Islamic cemetery in the central Massachusetts community — a probe that both sides said they welcome.

Ortiz assigned the Civil Rights Unit in her office to investigate the roadblocks to prevent the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester from turning a former dairy farm into what would be the state’s largest Muslim burial site.

“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.”

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Said John Robbins, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations: “Fortunately, when you have state-sponsored support for the Muslim community . . . this really sends a strong message to the populace that discrimination [and] stigmatization against the Muslim community will not be tolerated.”

In opening the investigation, Ortiz’s office is wading into a small-town dispute that has attracted national attention.

The society has argued that anti-Muslim sentiment is fueling resistance to the graveyard. Town officials say they are trying to preserve Dudley’s rural character and ecology.

Ortiz said the investigation is aimed at assessing “whether there have been violations of federal civil rights laws in connection with the request to establish an Islamic cemetery in Dudley.”

The zoning board in the town of about 11,600 ruled in June that the society would need a special permit to build the cemetery on a 55-acre parcel, prompting the group to file its own suit against Dudley officials in state Land Court.

Negotiators on both sides of the deal say they have been in discussions to potentially resolve the dispute but have not yet reached common ground.

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Jason R. Talerman, an attorney for the Islamic society, said in an interview Thursday that the group appreciates the efforts of the US attorney’s office in what he described as the battle against Islamophobia.

“I see this as a clear-cut case of religious discrimination,” Talerman said, though he added that he believes that the group could still come to an agreement with Dudley officials. He said Ortiz’s office would be “a welcome participant and teammate” if there is no deal.

“We have been engaged in discussions with the town,” he said. “We remain hopeful that they could bear some fruit. They haven’t as of yet.”

In a statement Thursday, town administrator Greg Balukonis said the town “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.”

He said Dudley officials intend “to fully cooperate with the investigation and shall provide all requested documents related to the denial of a special permit for the cemetery.”

The Islamic organization, which is based in Worcester and serves about 350 families, wants to bury its dead in Dudley because the Muslim graveyard it uses in Enfield, Conn., is 60 miles from Worcester and double the driving time.

The group signed a purchase-and-sale agreement for the Dudley land in January. Leaders of the society say only about 10 to 15 burials would occur each year.

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The society, which has the support of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, has since offered to reduce the space available for graves by about half and argues that it does not need a special permit because it is exempt from zoning regulations as a religious nonprofit.

Ortiz’s involvement also comes as the town plans a hearing Monday to consider exercising what selectmen say is the town’s right of first refusal to buy the land, which has been granted local tax relief under a state law designed to protect agricultural property.

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.

Proposals for Muslim cemeteries in other states have been met with similar resistance, including in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Texas.

John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was also included. Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andyrosen.