TX Town Council OKs Muslim Cemetery

DALLAS (AP) -- Leaders of a rural Texas town have approved design plans for a Muslim cemetery three years after the project was met with derision and claims that it was a precursor to a mosque or an extremist training center.

The City Council in Farmersville on Thursday OK'd the cemetery plans submitted by the Islamic Association of Collin County.

City spokesman Mike Sullivan, who's also the police chief, said Friday the association now must submit a final design plan, but described it as an administrative step before the cemetery can be placed across some 35 acres (14 hectares) just outside the city, which is about 40 miles (65 kilometers) northeast of Dallas.

The council's action prevents a lawsuit by the association and the U.S. Justice Department on federal claims Farmersville violated religious land-use and other protections, Sullivan said.

Backers of the project say the five or so Muslim cemeteries in North Texas have little remaining space and the association needs more land for burial. State rules limit the places where a new cemetery can be placed and Farmersville is one of the few options open to the association, which purchased the land in 2015.

But the plan met with a backlash from residents when it was unveiled that year. Some complained a cemetery would then bring a mosque or Muslim training center that would give radical elements of Islam a foothold in the region.

Others in the town of about 3,400 people expressed concern that Muslim burial practices --- Muslims traditionally don't bury their dead in caskets --- would present health risks for residents. But the association has said that shrouded bodies will be placed in caskets and entombed in vaults underground.

"It was ugly, but people got a chance to say what they wanted to say about the matter," Sullivan said of early comments. "The rumors --- it's going to be a training center, it going to do this, it's going to do that --- really reached a fever pitch."

The association pulled the project after the initial rash of criticism but later reintroduced it, only to have the council reject the plan last year due to concerns over drainage. Then came the threat of legal action involving the Justice Department, but that was addressed by a settlement agreement the parties signed Thursday.

"I think there was some change in the government and new leaders that maybe wanted to push this ball forward and be done with it," Sullivan said.

A call to City Manager Ben White on Friday was not returned. Asad Rahman, the association's general counsel, referred questions to an attorney for First Liberty Institute, a conservative legal organization based near Dallas that handles religious liberty cases. That attorney did not respond to requests for comment.

The cemetery will have about 11,000 burial sites and is expected to also have a pavilion in addition to restrooms and maintenance building on land that borders Audie Murphy Parkway, named for the decorated World War II hero who grew up in the area and went on to a career in Hollywood.

Nada Shabout, a Muslim and art history professor at the University of North Texas, said her mother-in-law is buried at a Muslim cemetery in Fort Worth, and with her death and those of a few friends, Shabout has seen "the need and negotiations that happen for burial."

Muslims are part of the community in North Texas, she said, and should be respected for their own rituals, just as other religions are known for theirs.

"It's not just about burial," she said. "It's about acknowledgement of the community."