Andrew Dys

Rock Hill zoning board axes SC Muslim cemetery

This wooded stretch of Bird Street, between Anderson Road and University Drive, is where Rock Hill Muslims want to establish a cemetery.
This wooded stretch of Bird Street, between Anderson Road and University Drive, is where Rock Hill Muslims want to establish a cemetery.

After a contentious public hearing where several residents opposed a Muslim cemetery in a Rock Hill neighborhood – including one woman who admitted she was not being “politically correct” or “nice” but said she was scared of what would go on inside a proposed Muslim cemetery fence – the cemetery was shot down Tuesday night by the city’s zoning board of appeals.

The decision drew short applause from a packed City Council chambers filled with people against the cemetery.

Muslim leaders were dismayed by not just the vote but what they said seemed like prejudice against Muslims.

“What I heard here was that we are Americans and have rights, but we as Muslims do not have the right to bury our dead,” said Nazir Cheema, a decades-long Rock Hill resident and leader of the effort to build the cemetery. “If this cemetery did not have the word Muslim, it would have been different. Are we not Americans? Do we not love America? Yes, we do.”

Muslim leaders said Wednesday they will talk to city officials again but had no immediate plans for appeal or legal action. Leaders from the Rock Hill mosque will meet Thursday, and Friday Muslims have traditional services where the cemetery rejection is expected to come up.

The property is in a mainly residential area near Anderson Road on Bird Street – but close to a Catholic church and school the same zoning board and city allowed to have a columbarium – a place for burial ashes and urns.

Muslims wanted a variance because of the property’s residential zoning. City planning officials told the zoning board they saw few problems with the cemetery – but the board still axed the idea.

At Tuesday’s meeting, only one person – who didn’t mention Islam specifically – publicly expressed concerns that “nobody knows what would be going on in there” behind a fence if a cemetery is built.

The woman, Mary Jo Downs, said she knew her remarks were not “politically correct” and “not nice” but said she felt the need to make them during the public meeting.

Several neighbors talked about concerns over property values, traffic and people just plain not wanting to live near a cemetery.

The site is near two schools that already have what one business owner called an “awful traffic problem.”

Joseph Sanocki, who lives near the property, spoke out Tuesday night against the cemetery, saying, “I find it insensitive, if not offensive,” to want to build a cemetery in a residential neighborhood.

Both Sanocki and his wife, Marty, said after the hearing they were pleased the board voted against the cemetery.

John Marshall, a neighbor who knows Cheema, said Cheema and his family are “very nice people” but he was opposed to the cemetery because of property values and concerns for resale with so many older people living in the neighborhood.

The Muslim cemetery would have been Rock Hill’s first. It has the support of an interfaith coalition.

Resident William Read, who lived in the Middle East for years, said, “Muslims need a place to bury their dead,” Read said.

Members of the Islamic Center of South Carolina, which operates a mosque in Rock Hill, want the cemetery to perform burials in traditional Islamic fashion, but the zoning board voted three for, three against, which left the measure defeated.

“I was born here in Rock Hill, raised here, live here and will die here, but apparently I can’t be buried here,” said James “Jumah” Moore, executive director of the Islamic Center. “It hurts me that my city would not see us as equals.”

The decision Tuesday night came despite a city lawyer telling the zoning board that federal court decisions have made it clear that local governments have to cross a high threshold for not granting religious institutions opportunities to practice their style of worship under religious freedom laws. The board even went into executive session for a short time to receive legal advice from the city’s lawyer on the issue, but still the cemetery failed when the board came out and voted in a tie.

Muslims pointed out that the cemetery would have no monuments, no processions, and would not be seen from the street or neighboring properties because of a tree and bush wall, plus a 10-foot fence.

Three zoning board members – Donovan Steltzner, John Antrim and Michael Smith – supported the cemetery. Steltzner said the issue was new for Rock Hill, which is used to western cemeteries, but “this is the way people who practice Islam bury their dead.”

Zoning board members Keith Sutton, Jeff Greene and chairman Matthew Crawford opposed an exception to zoning rules for the cemetery. With the seventh board member absent, the zoning proposal failed to get a majority.

Muslim officials say they are disappointed but not be deterred.

“I am not discouraged,” said Moore. “When we wanted to build our mosque, we had many, many times we had to go through this. We will have a cemetery.”

Andrew Dys: 803-329-4065