What a Virginia cemetery case reveals about religious liberty

June 30, 2020

The Christian faith has always recognized the importance of the ritual of burial. From a story that begins in a borrowed tomb for a man too poor to buy his own, includes the cemeteries which dot the landscape of churchyards, and culminates in the promise that one day those graveyards will be the place where the redeemed are raised to new life, Christianity has always understood that how we treat the body after death is just as important as what we do in life. Even our liturgy is peppered with the language of burial: “buried with him in baptism and raised to walk in newness of life.”

That is why the case of Stafford County in Virginia restrictions on the constructions of a burial ground are so egregious. Recently the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit alleging that the county had imposed overly onerous restrictions on the zoning and construction of a new cemetery for the All Muslim Association of America (AMAA), which provides a low-cost burial place for poor Muslims in the Virginia and Washington, D.C., area. Both the DOJ and the AMAA argue that this represents a violation of the rights of the group to exercise their faith. Christians, even though we do not share the same beliefs, should reject any overt restriction on the ability of religious groups to provide burial space for their faithful. As people who worship a man given a tomb because of his poverty, this case should move all of us to defend the right of the AMAA to provide for the poorer members of their faith. 


The All Muslim Association of America provides burial space so that Muslims who are unable to afford a spot in other places can still be buried in accordance to the Muslim faith. When their current space began to fill up, they purchased an additional 25 acres, which at the time of the purchase met all the local and state requirements to be zoned for a cemetery. However, after learning that the group wished to turn it into a cemetery, the county changed the local ordinances. 

According to the lawsuit filed by the DOJ, the county made the zoning restrictions more burdensome, all while providing an exemption only for “churchyards,” setting a clear preference for churches over other faiths. The most onerous is that any land to be used for a cemetery must be more than 900 feet from a body of water that empties into the water table or from a personal well. The state only requires 100 feet of distance. All of the purchased land would violate the new limit set by the county because it lies next to a stream and lake. Further, the county made the process for receiving the permits more complicated and expensive following the petition by the AMAA to build the cemetery.

These actions are, according to the DOJ, a violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 and impede the free exercise of the religion of the AMAA. Also, the suit acknowledges that the requirements provide no additional health benefits over the state’s regulations. What they do is succeed in preventing the group from exercising its faith and allowing its members to be buried in accordance with their conscience. However, even if there were health benefits, one would wonder why it is acceptable for the body of a person buried under the symbol of a cross to contaminate the drinking water, but not of someone buried under a crescent moon. It is clear that this is a violation of the rights of Muslims to allow their life and death to be governed by their faith. 

Religious liberty for the living and the dead

For all people, this case should cause us to fight for the preservation of religious liberty, not just for the living but for the dead. While we often think of religious liberty as the ability to live out our faith, it also includes the right to die under the tenets of that faith. For minority religious groups especially, for whom their religion is arguably a more important marker of their identity, the right to be buried in a manner that agrees with their conscience is essential. 

The rituals that surround death and burial flow out of our deepest convictions about life, reality, and spirituality. Christians have historically believed that the body should be treated with reverence and buried because we believe that we will be resurrected to bodily form in the future. The practices of an Islamic burial are no less tied to their view of reality. The ceremonial washing and quick burial speak to their religious belief in the importance of the body and need for ritual purity. For both traditions, how the dead are treated is a direct result of the belief about humanity’s place in the world. How we speak of the dead, how we memorialize those who have died, and what we do in the final moments of life reveal what we believe about life in the present and the future, in the physical and spiritual realm. 

John Leland, the early American Baptist leader for whom our Washington, D.C., office is named, argued that the state will not answer for religious beliefs after death, so it should not limit their expression in life. To this, we can add that the government should not limit their expression after death, either by the individual or by those who love them.

Though some may argue that the manner of burial is a trivial matter, Christians of all people should recognize that this is a matter of the utmost importance. As people for whom burial is a symbol, and promise, of a future resurrection, we know the importance of the rituals surrounding death. And so, though we may not share the same theological beliefs as this group, we recognize that the choice of how to be buried is a matter of the utmost importance. And because we believe that all individuals, regardless of religious beliefs, share in the image of God, we must defend their right to live in accordance with conscience for they alone will give an answer for their lives, not the county commissioner, state officials, or the federal government. Because of this, we must defend the rights of all people to live, die, and be buried in accordance with conscience. 

Alex Ward

Alex Ward serves as the research associate and project manager for the ERLC’s research initiatives. He manages long term research projects for the organization under the leadership of the director of research. Alex is currently pursuing a PhD in History at the University of Mississippi studying evangelical political activity in … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24