DOJ seal United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division
RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN FOCUS

November 2007
Volume 29
 

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:

Oregon White Supremacist Sentenced for Rock Attack on Synagogue

An Oregon man was sentenced on November 13 to six months incarceration and six months home confinement for his role in a 2002 rock attack on Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, Oregon. The man, 22-year-old Gabriel Doyle Laskey, previously pleaded guilty to participating in the attack, in which he and four other men threw stones etched with swastikas through the synagogue’s windows during a religious service. Earlier this year, as reported in Volume 24, his brother Jacob Laskey, the ringleader of the group, was sentenced to more than 11 years in prison for charges relating to the attack and his efforts to obstruct justice in the case. Another defendant, Gerald Poundstone, was sentenced to 15 months imprisonment in September 2006.

According to the plea agreements and statements in court, the Laskey brothers and Poundstone, along with two other men, conspired to intimidate Jewish congregants at the Temple Beth Israel. The men traveled to the synagogue on October 25, 2002, in a vehicle driven by Jacob Laskey. They then threw rocks etched with swastikas through the synagogue’s stained glass windows while 80 members of the temple were inside. After throwing the rocks, the men fled the scene. The Laskey brothers and Poundstone pleaded guilty to various charges including conspiracy to deprive persons of their civil rights and intentional destruction of religious property. Jacob Laskey pleaded guilty to additional charges including obstruction of justice-related charges and a firearms offense.

“Such an attack on peaceful worshipers, using a symbol calculated to instill fear in a particular community, is a heinous act that will not be tolerated,” stated Rena J. Comisac, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “The Department of Justice is committed to the vigorous enforcement of federal hate crime laws.”

The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney William E. (Bud) Fitzgerald and Civil Rights Division Trial Attorney Roy Conn III. The case was investigated by special agents from the Eugene office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In the last two fiscal years, the Division had obtained a record number of convictions for civil rights violations. In fiscal year 2007, the Division convicted 189 defendants, the highest annual number of convictions ever in the history of the Division, which surpassed last year’s record number of 181 convictions.

Sentencing in Philadelphia Workplace Threat Case

A Philadelphia woman who sent an anonymous threatening note to her Arab and Muslim-American supervisor was sentenced on October 24 in federal court in Philadelphia to eight months confinement in a community corrections center as part of two years supervised probation. The woman, Kia Read, pleaded guilty on June 22, 2007, to interfering with her supervisor’s federally protected employment activity by sending a threat based on her religion and ethnicity.

As reported in Volume 26, Reid admitted in her guilty plea to leaving an anonymous threatening letter in October 2006 in her supervisor’s office at the Sheraton Suites Hotel in Philadelphia. The note consisted of threatening words and phrases cut from publications, including “REMEMBER 9/11,” “you and your kids will pay,” “tie onto the fence,” “strategically planned,” and “death.”

“Threats against individuals because of their race, ethnicity, or religion are contemptible and un-American, and will not be tolerated,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Rena J. Comisac said.

The case was investigated by the Philadelphia Field Office of the FBI and was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Michael Schwartz and Jeffery Whitt from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and Civil Rights Division Trial Attorney Eric L. Gibson.

Since 9/11, the Justice Department has prosecuted 38 defendants for federal bias crimes against Muslims, Arabs, Sikhs, and South Asians, with 34 convictions to date. The Department has also assisted in more than 150 state and local prosecutions involving bias crimes against these groups. More information is available on the website of the Civil Rights Division’s Initiative to Combat Post-9/11 Discriminatory Backlash.

Seventh Circuit Rules Church Must Be Permitted to Locate in Commercial Zone on Same Basis As Secular Assemblies

On October 30, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that the City of Indianapolis likely violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) when it refused to permit religious assemblies in a commercial district on the same basis as nonreligious assemblies. The court reversed a lower court and ruled that the city’s asserted interest in preventing establishments that sell alcohol and pornography from locating near churches could not justify barring churches from the commercial district. The court also ruled that the city’s favorable treatment of churches in residential zones could not justify discriminating against them in commercial zones. The Civil Rights Division filed a brief and argued the case as a friend-of-the-court.

In 2004, the Baptist Church of the Westside leased space in a commercial zone that permits clubs, assembly halls, community centers, and other similar uses. After the church began holding worship and related activities in the building, the city told the church that its activities were barred in the commercial zone without a variance from the city. The church filed suit, claiming that the city had violated § 2(b)(1) of RLUIPA, which provides that the government may not “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.”

The trial court below rejected the § 2(b)(1) unequal treatment claim on the ground that churches were not similar to the various permitted assembly uses, for two reasons. First, the court argued, churches are permitted in certain other zones of the city as of right or by special use permit, and in those zones they are automatically allowed to have accessory uses such as parsonages and schools. The trial court reasoned that churches are thus treated favorably in the overall zoning scheme, and that parsonages and other accessory uses would not be appropriate in a commercial district. Second, the trial court reasoned that Indiana law restricts how close establishments selling liquor and pornography can be to a church, and thus a church in a commercial district could affect nearby businesses in ways that secular assemblies could not.

The Seventh Circuit reversed, finding that RLUIPA requires churches to be treated at least as well as secular assemblies. This RLUIPA right cannot be defeated, the court concluded, by defining all churches as including parsonages and other accessory uses, since while some churches may have such accessory uses, others, like this one, do not and simply want to be treated the same as secular assemblies. Similarly, the requirement of equal treatment cannot be evaded by relying on the Indiana law restricting alcohol and pornography sales near churches. While such measures may have been designed to protect churches, this church does not want such special protection, but only wants to be treated like secular assemblies, which is its right under RLUIPA. The court concluded: “government cannot, by granting churches special privileges . . . , furnish the premise for excluding churches from otherwise suitable districts.”

Also weighing in on an issue that has divided some lower courts, the Seventh Circuit held that while a different section of RLUIPA, § 2(a), requires plaintiffs to show a “substantial burden” on their religious exercise, proof or substantial burden is not required for a § 2(b)(1) discrimination claim: “If proof of substantial burden were an ingredient of the equal-terms provision, the provisions would be identical, which could not have been Congress’s intent.”

Since 2001, the Civil Rights Division has reviewed more than 140 cases involving RLUIPA, opened 34 formal investigations, and filed four lawsuits. 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 RLUIPA page and at www.FirstFreedom.gov.

New York Village's Ban on Shabbos House Violates RLUIPA, DOJ Argues

The United States on November 8 asked a federal court to rule that the Village of Suffern, New York, violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) when the village barred a Jewish group from operating a “Shabbos House” next to a hospital. The United States’ motion for summary judgment contends that the village imposed a substantial burden on the religious exercise of the Shabbos House, which provides meals and lodging to Sabbath-observant Jews who are released from the hospital on the Sabbath, or who are visiting patients at the hospital, but who are forbidden by their faith from traveling.

Bikur Cholim, which means "visiting the sick” in Hebrew, is an Orthodox Jewish organization that has operated a Shabbos House near Good Samaritan Hospital since 1988. Originally, the Shabbos House was on the grounds of the hospital, but hospital expansion required it to move to a building across from the hospital’s parking lot. The new location is in a residential district. The village began enforcement action against the Shabbos House on the ground that it is not a permitted use in a residential district. Bikur Cholim sought a variance, which the village denied.

The United States argues that without the Shabbos House, Sabbath-observant Jews who are released from the hospital on or shortly before the Sabbath, and those visiting patients, are without any viable options. The nearest hotel is a 1.8 mile walk along a major commercial road with only intermittent sidewalks. Furthermore, Sabbath-observant Jews are prohibited from entering commercial transactions on the Sabbath. Thus, the United States argues, banning the Shabbos House from operating imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of the Sabbath-observant patients and visitors at the Good Samaritan Hospital.

The United States observed in its brief that those using the Shabbos House have demonstrated that they have a religious duty to visit sick friends and relatives. The village’s denial of the variance forces them to choose between their religious duty to care for the sick and their duty to observe the Sabbath. As the United States’ brief concludes, the village’s “decision to deny Bikur Cholim’s variance effectively precludes Bikur Cholim’s religious exercise of helping observant Jews visit and care for the sick at Good Samaritan Hospital on the Sabbath. Indeed, it is undisputed that absent a variance, there is no location in Suffern where the Shabbos House could exist.”

Upcoming First Freedom Project Seminars

The next two regional seminars on Federal Enforcement of Laws Protecting Religious Freedom will be held in Los Angeles on November 29 and in Washington, D.C. on January 30. 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, and Chicago.

The seminars are designed for religious, community, and civil rights leaders, attorneys, and local government officials and cover 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 Los Angeles seminar is near capacity, but space may still be available. To inquire, please write to firstfreedom@usdoj.gov. To register for the Washington, D.C., seminar, please send your name, phone number, and organization if applicable, to firstfreedom@usdoj.gov.


United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division
http://www.usdoj.gov/crt