Andrew Dys

Rock Hill Muslims: Cemetery buried by city not dead yet

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

Muslims whose bid for an Islamic cemetery was buried last week by the Rock Hill zoning board say their efforts are not dead, but they still want answers about why their request was denied.

And even though the members of the Islamic Center of South Carolina have not asked for any outside help, a national Muslim civil rights group that has waded into similar cemetery battles in Nevada, Texas and other states is offering to help the group fight the zoning decision, if they choose to appeal.

“We will have a cemetery, God willing, but not at that place, it appears,” said Nazir Cheema, a decades-long Rock Hill resident who has led the effort to build a cemetery where Muslims can bury their dead under Islamic tradition.

“But we we still want to know why the board did what it did.”

The property on Bird Street near Anderson Road where the proposed cemetery would be built is zoned residential. Members of Masjid Al-Salam – literally, Mosque of Peace – had asked the city Zoning Board of Appeals for an exception that is often allowed for religious structures, schools, playgrounds and more. City planners did not oppose the variance.

The zoning board denied the request – on a tie vote – after nearby residents came out in force against the cemetery at a July 21 public hearing, presenting a petition with 28 signatures.

Most of the neighbors who opposed the cemetery cited property values, traffic concerns, and generally not wanting to live next to a cemetery – regardless of religion. Even with a fence and tree and shrubs, the cemetery would be across Bird Street from businesses and border residential properties and a pair of group homes for people with disabilities.

One woman openly questioned what would happen behind a Muslim cemetery fence, saying she knew it was “not nice” or “politically correct” to publicly say so.

Cheema and other Muslims – some of whom have lived in Rock Hill for decades, some all their lives – believe the neighbors “ganged up” on the proposed cemetery by using claims of property values and other reasons for opposition to the cemetery, when the Muslim religion was the overriding factor.

The neighbors had every right to voice concerns.

How the zoning board acted, however, remains at issue – especially since it had recently approved the construction of a columbarium – a place for urns and ashes – on property owned by a Catholic church just a few hundred yards from where the Muslims want to establish their cemetery.

Brent Thompkins, a lawyer with the Spencer & Spencer law firm that represents the city, warned zoning board members at the July 21 meeting that refusing to allow the cemetery could violate federal law that ensures religious freedom for all faiths. The legal concern was of such importance that the zoning board met behind closed doors to receive legal advice from Thompkins – and still voted down the cemetery.

Muslims attending a worship service Friday at Masjid Al-Salam near downtown Rock Hill discussed the issue but took no action. Cheema is scheduled to meet this week with Paul Dillingham, another Spencer & Spencer attorney who represents the city.

“We want an explanation (about whether) the city abided by its own rules,” Cheema said. “We live here. This is our community and our home. We respect the city and our neighbors. But we want to know if they acted properly.”

Cheema said he wants to give city officials a chance to explain what happened and why before deciding whether to appeal the zoning board’s decision to Circuit Court.

The zoning board’s denial of the zoning change could violate the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which was enacted to prevent local governments from using zoning decisions to block religious expression, said Ibrahim Hooper, communications director for the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights advocacy group.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations is following the Rock Hill Muslims’ case and has offered legal and other advice after reading The Herald’s coverage of the cemetery conflict. The group is involved in a similar situation near Dallas, Texas, where a proposed Muslim cemetery has been met by unified neighbor opposition – including one person saying in a public meeting that opponents should throw pig’s blood and a pig’s head onto the site to keep a Muslim cemetery out.

That type of threat has not happened in Rock Hill, but opposition to a Muslim cemetery is typical, Hooper said.

“We don’t usually see the word ‘Muslim’ used as opposition,” Hooper said. “What is used is ‘traffic’ and other reasons to oppose Muslims.

“That is a smokescreen; the opposition is to Muslims.”

Andrew Dys: 803-329-4065