Faith leaders and activists are asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate whether officials in a southern Dakota County township discriminated against Muslims when they rejected a plan for an Islamic cemetery.

The board of Castle Rock Township denied Al Maghfirah Cemetery Association’s application to develop the property, which it bought about a year ago for $700,000. Board members said the cemetery would result in lost tax revenue and were concerned about the property being limited to Muslim burials, rather than open for general use.

But the cemetery association argues that they met all of the township’s standards.

“Discriminatory actions like this challenge the core fundamentals of our freedom of religion,” Jaylani Hussein, director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Minnesota, said at a news conference Monday in Hastings. Hussein and about 35 others, including religious leaders of various faiths, stood in front of the Dakota County Judicial Center in support of the cemetery plan.

Some of them will be back at the courthouse Tuesday. The cemetery association is suing the township, arguing that it denied the plan for “unreasonable, arbitrary, and capricious” reasons.

The association is seeking a conditional-use permit to begin construction on the site, as well as more than $50,000 in damages and other costs, according to the group’s civil complaint.

Judge David Knutson will consider both sides’ motions for summary judgment Tuesday.

Castle Rock Township’s zoning rules initially allowed a cemetery at the site, and the Planning Commission recommended the board of supervisors approve it.

But board members raised numerous concerns with the plan and in August 2014 they denied the application, meeting minutes show.

After the denial, the township changed its regulations so the cemetery is no longer allowed at the property, according to CAIR.

“The town’s primary reason for denial was based on the amount of land that would be dedicated to the cemetery and the resulting tax revenue that would be lost as a result,” the township’s motion for summary judgment states.

The township already has three other cemeteries, and the addition of a fourth on a 73-acre plot of land would cause the community to lose $17,000 annually in tax revenue, according to the motion.

Board members declined to comment or did not respond to calls Monday.

Ed Siegfried, who has a hobby farm next to the proposed cemetery site, said he is worried about how decomposing bodies would affect the Jordan aquifer and his well, located 150 feet from the site.

Soil borings showed that contamination would not be a problem, said Hyder Aziz, a member of Al Maghfirah Cemetery Association. If there was, the Planning Commission would not have approved the application, Aziz said.

“They said this application is perfectly fine,” Aziz said, then the board rejected it. “I don’t know what’s going on, but something is not right.”

Promoting understanding

Aziz walked around the sparsely treed site Monday and discussed the cemetery association’s vision for it.

The trees would be moved to the edge to create a natural fence. The parcel would be developed in pieces and the landscaping would be simple. It would be a quiet place where Muslims could preserve their traditions, he said.

There are Islamic cemeteries in Burnsville and Roseville, but they are filling up, Aziz said. The Castle Rock Township property would provide enough space for Minnesota Muslims to bury their dead for the next 200 to 300 years, he said.

“We should have a proper cultural resting place for the Muslims after their death,” Imam Hassan Mohamud said at Monday’s news conference, where religious leaders called for increased understanding and respect.

Hussein, the CAIR director, said there have been several cases of Islamophobia in Minnesota in recent years, including the rejection of an Islamic worship center in St. Anthony, which was later reversed, and opposition to a Muslim school in Blaine.

The council gave the Department of Justice information on the Castle Rock Township case, he said, and are waiting to see whether officials will investigate.

“I think it’s important for Minnesota and faith leaders to understand that freedom of religion is at stake here,” Hussein said.