As Negotiations With Town Of Dudley Falter, Islamic Society Seeks State, Federal Action

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One of the fields of the property the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester wants to turn into a cemetery. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
One of the fields of the property the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester wants to turn into a cemetery. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

A simmering controversy over a proposed Muslim cemetery in the central Massachusetts town of Dudley, which became the subject of mediation efforts, appears to have boiled over this week.

Ten months after it approached the town and filed a permit for the cemetery, the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester says negotiations are going nowhere. Attorneys for the society now say their hope is with the courts and the U.S. Justice Department.

Jay Talerman, the attorney for the Muslim applicants, could not have been more emphatic: The town was unwilling to compromise and its motives were "tainted by bigotry," he said.

"We have withdrawn all our settlement proposals, and we intend to fully litigate this in whatever forum we have to," Talerman said, alluding to a case it’s filed in state Land Court and to a civil rights suit it has threatened to file in federal court.

Responding two days later, the lawyer for the town of Dudley, Gary Brackett, called Talerman’s statements "absolutely false."

“The town of Dudley has always been willing to compromise,” Brackett said.

He said the Select Board approved a counter-proposal regarding the cemetery that was conveyed to the Islamic Society on the same day its attorney, Talerman, announced they were walking away.

Brackett says there is no reason to stop the mediation efforts that're being aided by a retired judge.

But in a sign of the gulf that has widened, he accused the Muslim society’s attorney of incompetence, unprofessionalism and dishonesty, saying that Talerman has shown the worst representation of a client "I’ve seen in 42 years as a municipal attorney."

This week’s blowup contrasts sharply with expressions from both sides in August that there were signs of hope and progress, and it is reminiscent of the start of the controversy in January, when intense opposition met the cemetery proposal.

The land in question was 55 acres of old farmland that have gone unsold for decades.

Neighbors raised fears about its size and scale and the contamination of their drinking water. Public statements by opponents triggered accusations of Islamophobia, which caused further anger.

The matter went to the town Zoning Board. Meanwhile, a town meeting in May authorized the Board of Selectmen to initiate a process of buying the land on which the Islamic Society had a purchase and sales agreement. The Board of Selectmen, with counsel from its attorney, claimed a right of first refusal to buy the land, which would have had the effect of taking the land out of ownership of the Islamic Society.  (The board would later choose not to pursue the idea.)

After the Zoning Board rejected the cemetery permit application in June, Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz announced an investigation into possible religious discrimination.

But after the Islamic Society filed suit against the town in Land Court, both sides agreed to mediation. There was talk of compromise, of progress, of scaling down the cemetery in size and scope. But after four meetings, a proposal and a counter-proposal, the Islamic Society's attorney has declared an impasse.

"It is readily apparent they never intended to work with us," Talerman said. "At each turn of our negotiations with the town, whenever we thought we had progress the town backtracked and found a new device or instrument to slow down, delay or prevent our project."

In response, Dudley’s town counsel says that if Talerman and the Islamic Society were really interested in compromise, its lawyer would have notified Land Court of the impasse instead of walking out. Now the town says it will seek summary judgment from the court on all six claims in the Islamic Society suit.

Meanwhile, the Muslim applicants have been joined by the American Civil Liberties Union, and prominent Boston attorney Howard Cooper, who has previously announced plans to file civil rights claims in federal court. And according to both sides in the dispute, Ortiz has begun to carry out her investigation. Talerman said state Attorney General Maura Healey has been involved as well.

So 10 months later, the small town of Dudley has a problem that’s only gotten bigger.

This post was updated Oct. 28 with reaction from the town attorney. 

This article was originally published on October 26, 2016.

This segment aired on October 27, 2016.


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David Boeri Senior Reporter
Now retired, David Boeri was a senior reporter at WBUR.



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