Religious Freedom In Focus, Volume 13

DOJ seal United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

August/September 2005
Volume 13

Religious Freedom in Focus is a periodic email update about the Civil Rights Division's religious liberty and religious discrimination cases. The Civil Rights Division has placed a priority on these cases. Through vigorous enforcement of:

  • Federal statutes prohibiting religion-based discrimination in education, employment, housing, public facilities, and public accommodations;
  • Federal laws against arson and vandalism of houses of worship and bias crimes against people because of their faith; and
  • The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA);

and through participation as intervenor and friend-of-the-court in cases involving the denial of equal treatment based on religion, the Civil Rights Division is working to protect the right of people of all faiths to participate fully in public life.

More information about this initiative, and back issues of this newsletter, may be found on the religious discrimination home page of the Civil Rights Division website. You may also contact the Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination, Eric W. Treene, at (202) 353-8622.


Suit Alleges Religious Discrimination in Ohio Union Fee Rules

The Civil Rights Division filed a religious discrimination suit against the State of Ohio and its employee union on August 26, charging that employees are being forced to support the union over their religious objections.

Under the collective bargaining agreement between the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, AFSCME, Local 11, AFL-CIO and the state, employees must either join the union or pay the union a representation service fee. The agreement contains a provision accommodating the conscientious objections of some employees who have religious objections to supporting the union. Employees who are members of churches that have “historically held conscientious objections to joining or financially supporting” unions are permitted to pay an amount equal to the union service fee to a charity mutually agreeable to the employee and the union. However, Ohio and the union have refused to extend this exemption to state employees with sincere religious beliefs against supporting the union, but who do not belong to such churches with histories of opposition to supporting unions.

An employee of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, Glen Greenwood, is a Presbyterian who has a religious objection to supporting the union on the grounds that the union and its affiliates support abortion and same-sex marriage. He sought to direct his union fees to a mutually agreeable charity, but his claim was rejected by the Ohio State Employment Relations Board on the grounds that the Presbyterian Church did not have a historically held position against joining or supporting unions, and that his religious objection was personal in nature. He then filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which unsuccessfully tried to mediate the dispute. The EEOC then referred the case to the Civil Rights Division.

The Civil Rights Division complaint alleges that the State of Ohio, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and the Ohio Department of Administrative Services discriminated against Mr. Greenwood on the basis of religion in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by failing to give him the same treatment for his sincerely held religious beliefs as is accorded members of churches that historically have opposed association with unions. The complaint also alleges that the state defendants have engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination. The complaint thus seeks relief not only for Mr. Greenwood, but for all other employees with sincere religious beliefs against joining or supporting the union. The union and the Ohio State Employment Relations Board were joined in the suit as indispensable parties. The suit seeks a court order requiring that all those with sincere religious objections to supporting the union be given the opportunity to direct their fees to charity.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Bradley J. Schlozman stated: “The union-fee system in Ohio discriminates in favor of members of those churches with long histories of opposing unions, and against individuals who have religious objections to supporting a union that are just as sincere. Such discrimination is forbidden by the civil rights laws and must end.”

Division Defends Student’s Right to Observe Religious Holidays

On August 10, the Civil Rights Division filed a brief arguing that an Indiana eighth-grader’s right to free exercise of religion was violated when his public middle school refused to grant him more than one day of excused absences per year for religious holidays.

The Tri-Creek School district permits only one day of excused absence per year for religious holidays. However, the school does permit more than one excused absence for illness, death in the family, attendance at the State Fair, service as a page at the State Legislature, and in other cases in the discretion of the principal. When the eighth grader, who along with his family adheres to the tenets of the United Church of God, missed nine days of school last year to attend obligatory holiday services, he was given eight unexcused absences. As a result, he was required to sign an attendance contract stating that he had excessive absenteeism and could face expulsion, and his mother was threatened with child-neglect charges. Some of his teachers refused to allow him to make up classwork and gave him zeroes for the missed work.

In response to a written complaint from the boy’s mother, the Civil Rights Division opened an investigation of the Tri-Creek School District in November 2004. The boy’s mother subsequently filed a private lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana. As the 2005-2006 school year approached, she filed a motion for a preliminary injunction with the court, and the United States filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of her position.

The United States’ brief argues that the school’s failure to give the boy excused absences violates his free exercise rights under the First Amendment. His Free Exercise Clause rights are being violated for two reasons. First, the school grants excused absences for various secular reasons, such as death in the family or attendance at civic activities. The school has shown no compelling reason why it cannot make the same accommodation of religious absences that it does with these other types of absences. By providing excused absences for various other personal reasons, the brief argues, “the school policy contemplates that any missed school work can be made up and that the educational mission of the District will not be undermined in any significant way by the absences. The same is true with religious absences.”

Second, the brief argues that this case falls within the well-established doctrine of First Amendment law that free exercise of religion coupled with parents’ rights to direct the religious upbringing of their children requires the government to show an especially strong reason before it can interfere with those rights. For example, in Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972), the Supreme Court held that “the fundamental interest of parents . . . to guide the religious future and education of their children” required state compulsory education to give way to Amish parents’ desire to provide their children vocational education in community with other Amish children after the eighth grade. Similarly, here the plaintiff seeks to ensure that her son is able to attend the religious holidays that are integral to her family’s faith. But in contrast to Yoder, where the parents wanted to pull their children out of school entirely, she seeks only to remove her son from school for a small number of days each year. The brief thus contends that: “The District’s attendance policy and actions have violated her right to direct the religious upbringing and education of [her son] by denying her the irreplaceable opportunity to guide her son’s study and experience of church doctrine and practice.”

Guilty Plea in Washington Cross Burning

Collin Patrick Sargent pleaded guilty on July 19, 2005 to participating in a cross-burning on the front lawn of an Iranian-American family's home in Edmonds, Washington in July 2004. Sargent pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate civil rights under 18 U.S.C. 241. He admitted that along with several others he helped construct a five-foot tall cross, drove it to the family’s home, and ignited it. Sentencing is scheduled for October 7, 2005.

The trial of two alleged co-conspirators, Jason Russel and Joseph Linn, is scheduled for October 3. The cases of two juveniles allegedly involved in the incident were referred to local prosecutors.

Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Justice Department has investigated more than 675 bias crimes against Muslim, Sikhs, and people of Middle-Eastern and South-Asia descent. Federal charges have been brought in 26 cases against 34 defendants, yielding the conviction of 24 defendants to date. Twelve federal prosecutions are currently pending trial or sentencing. State and local authorities have brought more than 150 criminal prosecutions, with the help of the Department of Justice in many cases. More information on the Civil Rights Division’s efforts to combat bias crimes and discrimination against these communities may be found at the Division’s Initiative to Combat Post-9/11 Discriminatory Backlash web page.

United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

Updated August 6, 2015