Religious Freedom In Focus, Volume 5

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United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division


June/July 2004
Volume 5

Religious Freedom in Focus is a monthly email update about the Civil Rights Division's religious liberty and religious discrimination cases. Assistant Attorney General R. Alexander Acosta 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.


Court Upholds Right of Good News Clubs to Distribute Flyers and Permission Slips

In a victory for the equal treatment of religious expression in public schools, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit agreed with the Civil Rights Division on June 30 that the Good News Club in Montgomery County, Maryland, may distribute notices about its meetings and permission slips to students on the same basis as other community groups serving children. The Civil Rights Division had filed a friend-of-the-court brief and argued the case before the Court of Appeals.

Assistant Attorney General R. Alexander Acosta applauded the decision. “The Supreme Court made clear in the Good News Club case that it is unconstitutional to discriminate against religion-oriented youth groups that want to use school facilities after hours,” he said. “The Court of Appeals has now also made clear that schools may not try to do an end-run around the Supreme Court’s decision by allowing religious groups to meet, but then denying them the opportunity to inform students and parents about meetings on equal terms with other groups.”

Good News Clubs are Christian youth organizations that hold weekly after-school meetings for children throughout the country featuring Bible-based games, stories, and other activities. Montgomery County allows most community groups serving children to provide flyers and permission slips to the school for inclusion in students' "take-home" folders and cubbies. Groups that have been permitted to distribute literature in this manner have included the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington, sports leagues, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Red Cross, and many others. Like many of these groups, the Good News Club holds meetings for children at school facilities after school hours. However, Montgomery refused to permit the Good News Club to give out its notices and permission slips like the other groups did, saying that the distribution system was not open to “proselytizing” or “evangelical” groups.

The Good News Club filed suit claiming that the school was unconstitutionally discriminating against it. The trial court denied the Club’s motion for a preliminary injunction to allow it to distribute its materials.

The Good News Club appealed. The Civil Rights Division filed a brief supporting the Good News Club’s position and argued the case before the Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia. The Court of Appeals agreed with the Civil Rights Division and held that the court should have required Montgomery County to let the Good News Club give out its flyers. The court noted that Montgomery County had conceded that it was engaging in viewpoint discrimination against the Good News Club. The county, however, argued that this discrimination was required by the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. Rejecting this rationale, the court held that it is “plain, under controlling precedent, that allowing [the Good News Club] access to this forum would not be likely to violate the Establishment Clause.” The court relied on the June 2001 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Good News Club v. Milford, which held that a town could not bar a Good News Club from holding after-school meetings at a public school, since the school's community-use policy permitted secular youth groups engaged in the same types of activities to use the space. The Court of Appeals likewise held that schools giving out flyers for students to take home did not amount to government support or advancement of religion. The court held that “receipt of an invitation to a religious activity (with the hope that students will deliver the invitation to their parents) simply does not rise to the level of support or participat[ion] in religion or its exercise.”

Guilty Pleas in Church Desecration Case

On July 16 the Department of Justice announced the guilty pleas of two men responsible for vandalizing the Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Roanoke, Virginia. The church is a nationally recognized historic landmark. Zachary Lee Bryant and Christopher Martin, both of Roanoke, each pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate the civil rights of the church’s African-American congregation.

R. Alexander Acosta, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, stated: “The deliberate desecration of a house of worship should offend all Americans. We are committed to the protection of houses of worship from attacks based on racial and religious bigotry, and will vigorously pursue those responsible for such hateful acts.”

The two men admitted to breaking into the church on January 12, 2004 and committing various acts of vandalism, including breaking windows in the sanctuary, shattering light fixtures, throwing hymnals through windows, discharging fire extinguishers, and smashing photographs of congregants that hung on the sanctuary wall.

The case was investigated by the FBI, and prosecuted by the Civil Rights Division in conjunction with the office of the United States Attorney for the Western District of Virginia.

Supreme Court Reverses Lower Court Invalidation of Pledge, Sidesteps Constitutionality Question

On June 14, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its much-awaited decision in Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, reversing the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal’s ruling that the Pledge of Allegiance was unconstitutional. The Court, however, did not squarely address the issue of whether the pledge was constitutional or not. Instead, the Court held that the man who had brought the case, the noncustodial father of a California elementary school student, did not have legal standing to bring the suit. The Court’s ruling threw out the lower court’s decision, making the Pledge legal again in the Ninth Circuit, which covers nine western states. The failure to reach the merits of the case, however, leaves open the possibility of challenges in future cases.

Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices O’Connor and Thomas agreed that the court of appeals should be reversed, but believed the Supreme Court should have reached the substance of the case and upheld the pledge. Chief Justice Rehnquist argued in his concurring opinion that:

The phrase “under God” is in no sense a prayer, nor an endorsement of any religion, but a simple recognition of the fact noted [by Congress]: “From the time of our earliest history our peoples and our institutions have reflected the traditional concept that our Nation was founded on a fundamental belief in God.” Reciting the pledge, or listening to others recite it, is a patriotic exercise, not a religious one; participants promise fidelity to our flag and our Nation, not to any particular God, faith, or church.

The United States had argued in its brief that the reference to God in the Pledge “permissibly acknowledges the role that faith in God has played in the formation, political foundation, and continuing development of this Country.” The pledge, the United States’ brief argued, recognizes “the undeniable historical facts that the Nation was founded by individuals who believed in God, that the Constitution’s protection of individual right and autonomy reflects those religious convictions, and that the Nation continues as a matter of demographic and cultural fact to be ‘a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.’”

Brief Filed in Support of Congregation in Land-Use Dispute

The Civil Rights Division filed a brief on May 19th in an important religious land-use case in California. In Guru Nanak Sikh Society of Yuba City v. County of Sutter, the Division argued to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that the county’s successive denials of permits for a Sikh congregation to build a temple violated its rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA). The Division’s brief also argued that RLUIPA was a valid exercise of Congress’s power. The Division intervened in the lawsuit after the Defendants challenged RLUIPA’s constitutionality. RLUIPA bars zoning discrimination against houses of worship in or zoning laws that cause an unjustifiable burden on religion.

The plaintiff, Guru Nanak Sikh Society of Yuba City, purchased a two-acre tract of land in a residential area in Sutter County, California. Sutter County does not permit houses of worship anywhere in the county as-of-right. Houses of worship may locate in the county only if they obtain a conditional use permit and, even then, only in six out of the county’s twenty-two zoning districts. Four of those six districts are residential, and the other two are agricultural. The County’s planning department reviewed the plan and recommended approval. However, after a public meeting at which neighbors complained about potential noise and traffic, the County Planning Commission denied the permit.

Having been rebuffed in the residential district, the Sikh Society purchased a thirty-acre plot in one of the two agricultural zones in which houses of worship are permitted by conditional use permit. This permit was also denied.

The Sikh Society filed suit under RLUIPA, and the District Court found that the County’s actions imposed a substantial burden on the Sikh Society’s religious exercise without a compelling justification. The county appealed to the Ninth Circuit. The United States’ brief argues that in light of the Society’s demonstrated good-faith efforts to site its temple in a location and in a manner that will satisfy the county’s requirements, it should not have to “continue to purchase property after property in the [six] residential and agricultural zones in the speculative hope that at some point it will obtain approval.” Under these circumstances, the brief maintains, the denial of a conditional permit violated RLUIPA. The brief also argues that RLUIPA was well within Congress’s power to enact under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Morton Grove, IL, Settles Lawsuit with School After DOJ Mediation

Ending a dispute between a religious school and a village that began in 2002, and which led to a federal lawsuit and a Civil Rights Division investigation, the Village of Morton Grove and the Muslim Community Center announced on June 2 that they had reached a settlement with the help of mediators from the Department of Justice Community Relations Service.

The Muslim Community Center operates a K-8 school in the Village of Morton Grove, Illinois. The school holds daily prayer services for its students in its gym, and had opened services on Fridays to Muslims who live and work in the area. In November 2002, the school applied for a permit to expand its facilities to provide more classrooms, and to build a mosque on the site. The proposal met with heated community opposition. Some of the opposition was based on traffic and congestion concerns. However, there also were incidents of vandalism at the school and expressions of anti-Muslim sentiment.

The Village denied the school’s permit application in April 2003. In October 2003, the school brought an action in federal court under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The Civil Rights Division opened an investigation into whether the school’s rights were violated, invoking its RLUIPA enforcement authority. The Department of Justice Community Relations Service also began mediation efforts between the school and the village, and also with a group of neighbors, the Morton Grove Organization, which had filed a separate lawsuit against the school and the Village to try to block the school’s expansion plans.

After a series of mediation sessions with the Community Relations Service, the school and the Village announced in court on June 2 that they had reached an agreement on a plan that would meet the school’s expansion needs while limiting the impact on traffic, parking, and congestion. The Morton Grove Organization, however, dropped out of mediation and has said that it will continue to pursue its private suit.

United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

Updated August 6, 2015