Religious Freedom in Focus is a periodic email update about the Civil Rights Division's religious liberty and religious discrimination cases. On February 20, 2007, the Department of Justice launched a new initiative, The First Freedom Project, to highlight its work protecting religious freedom. 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 and back issues of this newsletter may be found at www.FirstFreedom.gov. You may also contact the Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination, Eric W. Treene, at (202) 353-8622.
IN THIS ISSUE:
DOJ Closes RLUIPA Investigation After County Allows Church’s Adult Education Classes to Continue
On December 4, the Civil Rights Division notified Fairfax County, Virginia, that the Division had closed its investigation into whether the county had violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) when it refused to allow a church to hold certain adult religion classes unless it obtained “college or university status.” The Division closed its investigation after the county agreed to permit the classes at McLean Bible Church to continue.
McLean Bible Church provides a range of religion classes for children and adults. In 2001, the church asked a local seminary, Capital Bible Seminary, to teach some of the church’s adult classes. The county subsequently told the church that it could not offer these classes without seeking zoning approval to operate as a college or university. The church had never sought to provide college or graduate school credit for these classes to its members, although the seminary did permit some of its students to take these classes for credit.
The church filed federal and state suits against the county in July 2006, claiming that by requiring the church to obtain a college or university status in order to conduct its religious education classes, the county imposed a substantial burden upon the exercise of the church’s religious beliefs in violation of RLUIPA Section 2(a). The church also alleged that the county had not treated the church equally with other houses of worship or with secular institutions.
The Civil Rights Division opened its own RLUIPA investigation on August 2, 2007. The church and the county then reached an agreement, and in October both the federal and state courts entered consent decrees dismissing the cases.
The settlement agreement provides that the church may continue to offer classes without limitation and to allow the seminary to teach up to four classes per week at the church. However, the agreement provides that none of these classes may be taken for credit toward a degree.
Since 2001, the Civil Rights Division has reviewed more than 140 cases involving RLUIPA and has opened 34 full investigations. These have included investigations involving Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist houses of worship and religious schools. Many of these have been resolved out of court through voluntary modification of potentially discriminatory zoning regulations. The Division also has filed four RLUIPA lawsuits. More information about RLUIPA can be found on the Civil Rights Division's Housing and Civil Enforcement Section homepage or at www.FirstFreedom.gov.
West Virginia to Allow Scholarship Deferment for Student Missionary
On December 7, 2007, David Haws reached a settlement with the West Virginia PROMISE Scholarship Board, resolving his lawsuit over the Board’s refusal to defer his college scholarship during his service as a Mormon missionary. Haws’ lawsuit in federal court contended that since scholarship deferments are permitted for personal and family medical reasons, bereavement, voluntary military enlistment, and “other unforeseen leave possibilities,” religious reasons should be given similar consideration. On August 24, the United States filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, Haws v. West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, arguing that the Board’s refusal to defer Haws’ scholarship was unconstitutional.
Haws was awarded the PROMISE Scholarship because of his outstanding academic performance in high school. He chose to attend West Virginia University, where his scholarship award covered virtually all of his tuition and fees. During his freshman year at WVU, however, Haws states that he was called to be a missionary. He requested a two-year deferment of his scholarship, but this was denied.
The United States’ brief argued that because the Board grants deferrals for a variety of secular reasons, the Free Exercise Clause requires the state to have a compelling justification for not extending similar exemptions to students requesting scholarship deferrals for religious reasons. Since the Board did not offer any such compelling justification, its refusal to defer Haws’ scholarship infringed his right to free exercise of his religion.
The Board objected to the United States’ filing a friend-of-the-court brief in the case. The Board argued, among other things, that the United States’ brief would not be useful and would needlessly complicate the litigation. The district court disagreed with the Board, however, finding that the United States’ brief provided a “helpful, additional perspective on the matters in controversy.”
Under the terms of the settlement, the Board reinstated Haws’s PROMISE scholarship and reimbursed his legal fees. Moreover, the Board recently revised its deferment policy, subject to state legislative approval, to explicitly include “service or volunteerism” among the enumerated reasons for which deferments will be permitted.
Third Circuit Clarifies RLUIPA’s “Equal Terms” Provision
Resolving a RLUIPA interpretation issue that has divided lower federal courts, on November 27 the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that houses of worship that are treated less favorably than comparable secular institutions need not additionally prove that the discrimination imposes a “substantial burden” on them. The court agreed with the position advocated by the United States in its friend-of-the-court brief that a lower court had erred in importing a requirement from a different section of RLUIPA that Congress never intended to apply to discrimination cases.
The case, Lighthouse Institute for Evangelism, Inc. v. City of Long Branch, involved a challenge under RLUIPA to a zoning decision barring a congregation from using its commercially zoned property as a church. Section 2(b)(1) of RLUIPA provides: “No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that treats a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution.” In ruling against the church, the trial court held that it was not enough that the church show discrimination, but that it also must show that the discrimination imposed a "substantial burden" on its religious exercise.
The Civil Rights Division’s brief argued that the “substantial burden” test, which is contained in Section 2(a) of RLUIPA and pertains to a different type of claim, should not be imported to discrimination claims under 2(b)(1), which bars discrimination in favor of secular uses and against religious ones, or under (b)(2), which bars discrimination against particular religions. The United States stated in its brief that “[u]nder this interpretation, a municipality could create a zone in which, for example, Christian churches may build on one-acre lots but Hindu temples must build on five-acre lots, unless a Hindu congregation can show that this rule substantially burdens its religious exercise.”
The Court of Appeals agreed and held that the District Court erred in requiring that the church show a substantial burden. However, on another issue not briefed by the United States, the court determined that the church had not been treated differently from comparable secular institutions and ruled that RLUIPA had not been violated in this case.
First Freedom Seminar to be Held in Washington, D.C. on January 30
The next regional seminar on Federal Enforcement of Laws Protecting Religious Freedom will be held in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, January 30, 2008. The seminar series is part of the Department of Justice’s initiative to increase enforcement of laws protecting religious freedom, The First Freedom Project. Prior seminars have been held in Kansas City, Tampa, Seattle, Brooklyn, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
The seminar is designed for religious, community, and civil rights leaders, attorneys, and local government officials and covers the full range of religious liberty laws enforced by the Civil Rights Division: laws barring discrimination based on religion in employment, public education, housing, credit, and access to public facilities and public accommodations; laws barring zoning authorities from discriminating against houses of worship and religious schools; laws protecting the religious rights of institutionalized persons; and criminal statutes such as the Church Arson Prevention Act, which makes it a federal crime to attack persons or institutions based on their religion or otherwise interfere with religious exercise through threats or violence.
The seminar will run from 9:00 a.m. to noon at the Office of Justice Programs Conference Center, 810 7th Street, N.W. A flyer with more information is available here. Attendance is free, but registration is required by January 24. Continuing Legal Education may be available. To register, please send your name, phone number, and organization if applicable, to firstname.lastname@example.org.
United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division