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Massachusetts Muslim cemetery to go ahead after year-long fight

By Scott Malone

BOSTON (Reuters) - A proposed Muslim cemetery in rural central Massachusetts will go forward after the town that fought the idea for most of the year and the Islamic society that proposed the plan reached a deal, the two sides said on Friday.

The agreement will allow the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester to buy a 55-acre (22.3-hectare) site where it plans to build a 6 acre (2.4 hectares) cemetery in the town of Dudley, located about 50 miles (80.5 km) southwest of Boston along the Connecticut border.

Some in the community expressed discomfort with the idea of a Muslim institution, an objection town officials said played no role in the delay.

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Muslim communities around the United States have faced similar resistance to new mosques and other properties, and the U.S. Justice Department this month filed suits against local governments in New Jersey, Virginia and Michigan accusing them of using zoning laws to block construction of proposed mosques.

"We are pleased that this 11-month saga has come to an end," said Jay Talerman, an attorney for the Islamic Society, in a phone interview. "The town is recognizing and acknowledging that our clients are proposing a beneficial and permitted use that is protected by the Massachusetts and U.S. Constitutions."

The Islamic Society proposed the cemetery early this year but, after a months-long review process that included heated public meetings, filed suit in state land court, saying the town was restricting the group's right to free expression of its religion.

Dudley officials said their review was focused on issues including whether the cemetery would affect local drinking water.

The case attracted the attention of Massachusetts' top federal prosecutor, whose office opened a civil-rights investigation into the matter. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the right to free expression of religion.

"We want to stress that the town's sole interest and motivation has been for all parties to respect the legal and regulatory process, and has absolutely nothing to do with the religious affiliation of the applicant," said Jonathan Ruda, chair of Dudley's board of selectmen, in a statement.

Both sides said the final review of the project would go forward next month and Talerman said the society hoped to break ground on the cemetery next spring. The deal would allow the society to expand the cemetery in ten years.

"Today is a good day for citizens of all beliefs," said Khalid Sadozai, a trustee of the Islamic Society. "Our right to practice our religion and honor loved ones in accordance with our Islamic faith has been affirmed."

(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Andrew Hay)