Cemetery/photo by J. Albert Diaz
On the same day the United States sued a tiny Texas town for religious discriminating against an Islamic faith group by denying its bid to build a cemetery, the government announced the town entered a settlement agreement to train its staff about federal law on religious land use.
The April 16 lawsuit and settlement brings to close a nasty dispute that started way back in 2015, when people in Farmersville vehemently opposed the idea of the Islamic Association of Collin County’s plans to build a Muslim cemetery outside their town.
Townsfolk made derogatory and discriminatory comments that the Islamic Association “was trying to build a terrorist training center,” that Islam was a violent religion, Muslims would impose Sharia law and residents would pour pig blood and dump pig heads on the land to desecrate it, according to the April 16 complaint in United States v. City of Farmersville, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas in Sherman.
Several residents won election to the city council, and two current council members won reelection after espousing their opposition to the cemetery in their campaigns. The Islamic Association’s cemetery plan advanced through the city’s normal planning and zoning process, making changes along the way to align with staff requests, and earned early approval along the way.
Yet when the city council in July 2017 considered the plans, council members raised concerns with drainage, flooding and public safety. An engineer working for the Islamic Association said an onsite detention pond would contain water flow, and he offered to expand the pond, but the council still unanimously denied the plans. They didn’t give time for the association to address any concerns, even though they had granted time for other land-use applications.
The federal lawsuit alleged the denial was driven by the city officials responding to the public’s anti-Muslim bias, which created political pressure and a fear they’d lose their jobs. The city violated the law by placing a burden on and discriminating against the Islamic Association and its members’ free exercise of religion, the complaint said.
The city has now resolved its controversy with the Islamic Association. In September 2018, the Islamic Association and Farmersville agreed the association would revise its cemetery plan to address the drainage and flooding concerns and the city would approve the plan. In December 2018, the city council approved the plan.
As long as Farmersville makes changes, the United States has agreed to dismiss the complaint, according to the settlement agreement in the case. Farmersville must post a notice in city hall that says it complies with the religious land use statute, and also to provide training about the statute to anyone with responsibilities in zoning or land use regulations.
“There is no place in our community for religious discrimination,” U.S. Attorney Joseph D. Brown of the Eastern District of Texas said in a statement. “Our office is committed to protecting religious freedom.”
Farmersville City Manager Ben White said the city disagreed with the allegations but is cooperating with the United States.
“We are going forward with the conditions laid out in the settlement agreement,” White said.
No one with the Islamic Association responded to a call or emails requesting comment.
Cemetery/photo by J. Albert Diaz