Supreme Court Hears Case About Cemetery-Access Law

Supreme Court Hears Case About Cemetery-Access Law

Genealogy clashes with property rights in a Pennsylvania cemetery-access law. This week, the highest court in the land heard the arguments from both sides.

Cemetery-access law determine whether or not genealogists can visit gravesites in private land.

We’ve all heard a lot about the Supreme Court in the past few months. But genealogists have a new reason to pay attention to SCOTUS news. On Oct. 3, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case related to whether genealogists can access privately held cemeteries. The case, Knick v. Township of Scott, involves a landowner who doesn’t want to comply with a local cemetery-access law.

In 2008, genealogist Robert Vail discovered where his ancestor, Micah Vail, was buried. As it turned out, the tombstone now lies on land that resident Rose Mary Knick has owned since 1970. Vail told The Philadelphia Inquirer he wants to visit the grave to maintain the monuments and honor his ancestor. He said he believes at least a half-dozen other relatives (including a Revolutionary War veteran) are buried there as well.

Knick denies a cemetery lies on her 90-acre property, but believes visitors (or the government) should pay to visit her property if one exists. Under an ordinance in Scott Township, Pennsylvania, landowners must provide daytime access to cemeteries on private land or else face a fine. But Knick, not wanting to open her private property to the public, has refused.

Knick sued Scott Township in 2013. Her lawyers have argued the ordinance violates her Fifth Amendment right to “just compensation” for public use of her land. But the court of common pleas dismissed her case, and the US district court and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that dismissal.

The Supreme Court generally hears only cases that have wider judicial or constitutional impact. As a result, the Court won’t directly rule on whether Vail and others should be able to access the cemetery. Instead, the Court will weigh in on a procedural matter: whether a pre-existing court decision should affect how landowners like Knick file complaints about federal taking claims. Under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank (1985), landowners suing about federal land seizures have to go through the state courts before filing in federal courts.

Because of Williamson, Knick wasn’t able to file suit in federal court as she would have preferred. The Supreme Court would have to overturn part of the Williamson decision to allow her to do so. The Court will likely issue its ruling in June 2019. If the Court rules in her favor, Knick could pursue the case further.

Cemetery-access laws vary by state, county and locality, and they impact who and when genealogists can visit gravesites on private land. Pennsylvania, for example, mandates that property owners grant individuals “reasonable ingress and egress to a burial plot.” (So even if a court strikes down the Scott Township ordinance, Knick may still have to comply with this state law.) Visit your local government’s or state legislature’s website to find what laws apply to your area.

For more, check out our articles on tombstones and cemetery research. You can learn about the different kinds of cemetery recordshow to use the new Find A Grave, and more.

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  1. There are a couple corrections to the above article. My Uncle has been trying to legally gain access to the cemetery long before 2008. Also, the “Monuments” are no longer there.

    For many, many years my Uncle has been trying to access the cemetery and has been told he will be arrested for trespassing if he does. So, he waits on the legal system to be allowed access. Time and time again, hearings came to court and were won, yet he still wasn’t allowed access and was threatened with jail if he did. Finally we were told we were allowed access and could not be arrested. He went over to find most of the monuments were no longer there but, due to his persistence, he did locate some (which I have pictures of) and he put up a flag to honor the Revolutionary war soldier buried there. The next day, he was contacted by the local paper doing a follow-up on the winning of the hearing. The reporter wanted to see the cemetery. When we took the reporter in, all the stones my uncle had located and the flag were gone. You make your own conclusions

  2. This is an issue for many individuals across the state. The cemetery was obviously there before the land was purchased in the 70s, whether the owner knew about it or not is another issue. I don’t agree that someone is trying to take her land from her since the cemetery was already established when she purchased the property. Removing the stones to aid in her case is shameful. These patriots of the American Revolution fought and died for the very liberties she enjoys every day. With that being said, I don’t see why access couldn’t be granted to relatives of the deceased. Of course there is a concern about liability should an accident occur and who would be responsible. Possible sign stating “Not responsible for injuries or accidents?” I too have the same issue with accessing my ancestor’s graves from the American Revolution and I may never get to pay tribute to their service just because a land owner won’t grant access to the cemetery. Quite a dilemma, hope it is resolved in June.