Freedom in Focus is a periodic email update about the Civil Rights Division's religious liberty and religious discrimination cases. On February 20, 2007, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales announced a new initiative, The First Freedom Project, to highlight the Department of Justice's 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:
Civil Rights Division Settles Muslim Student Prayer Case
On May 14, the Civil Rights Division reached a settlement with a Texas school district that allows a group of Muslim high school students to say their midday prayers at the school.
Several Muslim students at the Lewisville Independent School District contacted the Civil Rights Division in December 2006, alleging that the school had denied their requests for use of a classroom or other unused space during the lunch period to say their prayers, and also had barred them from kneeling in a corner of the cafeteria to say their prayers. The students alleged that clubs and informal groups of students were permitted to gather during the lunch hour, but they had been denied the ability to gather for their midday prayers. The Civil Rights Division opened an investigation and, after interviews with school officials and a site visit, reached a settlement that accommodates the religious needs of the students while meeting the concerns of the school for supervision of students during the school day and maintenance of order.
Under the terms of the settlement, the school agreed to permit the students to kneel and pray in a designated space in a common area outside the cafeteria, or provide an alternative space in the future that is acceptable to the Muslim students. The settlement provides that if the school meets these terms, the Civil Rights Division will close the matter.
Assistant Attorney General Wan J. Kim applauded the settlement. “The Supreme Court has long held that students don’t shed their rights at the schoolhouse gate,” he said. “Students should not be required to choose between practicing their faith and receiving a public education. The settlement reinforces the principle that public schools must be welcoming to people of all faiths, races, and nationalities.”
Settlement Reached in Wisconsin Student Fees Case
On May 2, 2007, the University of Wisconsin Roman Catholic Foundation reached a settlement with the University of Wisconsin resolving its lawsuit over the University's refusal to recognize UWRCF as an official student organization. The denial of official recognition had resulted in UWRCF's ineligibility to receive any portion of student activity fees. The Civil Rights Division had opened an investigation into the matter in October 2006 after receiving a complaint from a student that the denial of recognition and funding was solely because of the religious nature of UWRCF.
In March, the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin held a hearing to address the merits of the plaintiffs' motion for preliminary injunction. The court ultimately granted the motion in part and denied it in part. Specifically, the court ruled that the University acted unlawfully in enforcing a nondiscrimination policy against UWRCF that would have required the organization to admit non-Catholics in order to receive recognition. But the Court concluded that the university was justified in refusing to recognize UWRCF on grounds that the organization was not directed and controlled by students due to the composition of its governing board.
Under the terms of the settlement, UWRCF will establish itself as an autonomous student-controlled entity, and not request funding for any events "requiring the direct control of ordained clergy." The university, in turn, will recognize the restructured group as a bona fide student organization and award it at least $253,273 in segregated fees for the upcoming school year. As part of the agreement, UWRCF also agreed to withdraw its complaint to the Department of Justice.
Criminal Charges Filed Over Workplace Threat Targeting Muslim-American Woman
On May 1, the Department of Justice filed a federal criminal charge against a Philadelphia woman for sending an anonymous letter threatening her work supervisor, who is Muslim and of Arab descent. Kia Reid was charged with violating 18 U.S.C. § 245, which makes it a crime to interfere with a person’s federally protected rights on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin. Employment is among the federally protected rights set forth in the statute.
The single-count information charges that on October 2, 2006, Reid placed an anonymous letter in her supervisor’s office at the Sheraton Suites Hotel on which she had affixed words and phrases cut out of magazines that included the phrases “Remember 9/11" and “you and your kids will pay,” along with other threatening phrases and words. Reid faces up to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine. An information is merely an accusation, and the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty. The case was investigated by the FBI’s Philadelphia Field Office and is being prosecuted by the Civil Rights Division and the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
Since 9/11, the Civil Rights Division has brought federal charges against 36 individuals for physical attacks and threats against Muslims, Arabs, Sikhs, and South-Asians, with 32 convictions to date. More information about the Division’s efforts may be found on the home page of the Division’s Initiative to Combat Post-9/11 Backlash.
Next First Freedom Project Seminars Announced
The Department of Justice has announced four additional regional seminars on Federal Laws Protecting Religious Freedom for 2007, to be held in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. These seminars are part of the Attorney General’s First Freedom Project, which highlights the Department’s work enforcing laws against religious discrimination, criminal laws against interference with religious exercise and attacks on religious institutions and individuals, and other laws protecting religious freedom. The first three regional seminars, in Kansas City, Tampa, and Seattle, drew diverse audiences of religious and civil rights leaders, attorneys, local government officials, and interested citizens.
The next seminar will be held in Brooklyn, New York on Thursday, July 26 at 9:00 a.m. at Brooklyn Law School. For registration information and further information, please view the Brooklyn seminar flyer. Additional seminars are scheduled for Chicago in September, Southern California in October, and Washington D.C. in November. More information about the seminar series is available at www.FirstFreedom.gov under “Regional Seminars.”
United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division