Religious Freedom in Focus is a periodic email update about the Civil Rights Division's religious liberty and religious discrimination cases. In 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:
Guilty Plea in Anti-Christian Arson Case
On May 8, an Iowa man pleaded guilty to federal civil rights and arson charges for the burning of two churches in Burlington, Iowa, in April 2007. Kevin Michael Ravelin pleaded guilty to six federal counts for the arson of the historic First United Methodist Church, which burned to the ground, and the arson of the First Presbyterian Church, which sustained relatively minor damage. Ravelin was motivated in these attacks by a longstanding animus against Christians. Under the plea agreement, the defendant and the United States agreed that a 35-year sentence would be reasonable.
Early in the morning of April 29, 2007, Ravelin set fire to the First United Methodist Church, founded in 1888. The church contained many historic documents and artifacts about the founding and settling of Burlington. The church was completely destroyed. Ravelin also attempted to burn down the First Presbyterian Church across the street, but was unsuccessful. Because he targeted the churches specifically due to their religious character, he was charged with and pleaded guilty to two counts of 18 U.S.C. § 247, also known as the Church Arson Prevention Act. The Act provides for prosecution of any person who “intentionally defaces, damages, or destroys any religious real property, because of the religious character of that property, or attempts to do so.” Ravelin also pleaded guilty to two federal arson counts and two counts of using fire in the commission of a felony.
The case was investigated by the Burlington Police and Fire Departments; the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; the Des Moines County Sheriff’s Office; the Iowa State Fire Marshal’s Office; and the Iowa Department of Public Safety, Division of Criminal Investigation Crime Lab, with assistance provided by numerous other law enforcement agencies. The case was prosecuted by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Iowa.
Boston Man Indicted for Threat Against Iranian Woman
On April 29, a federal grand jury in Boston indicted Earl F. McBride, Jr. for sending threatening letters to an Iranian woman who owns two restaurants in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. McBride was indicted on a felony count of sending a threat through the mail in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 876(c).
The indictment alleges that in November 2006, McBride mailed the woman a letter, addressed by typewriter, containing a photo of a man aiming a gun at the viewer of the card. In January 2007, he sent a second envelope, also addressed by typewriter, containing a photograph of a soldier carrying a machine gun and looking directly at the viewer. Then, in June 2007, two days before the victim’s two restaurants were scheduled to take part in the “Taste of Beacon Hill” festival at the Taj Boston hotel, McBride allegedly mailed her a third letter, addressed again by typewriter, with a photocopy of a photo of a Saudi Arabian king and the words “See You at the Taj!” typed in the corner of the envelope.
The case was investigated by the FBI – New England Field Division, and is being prosecuted by the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts. An indictment is only an allegation, and a defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty. If convicted, McBride faces a maximum punishment of five years imprisonment and a $250,000 fine.
Since 9/11, the Justice Department has prosecuted 42 defendants for federal bias crimes against Muslims, Arabs, Sikhs, and South Asians, with 35 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.
DOJ Closes RLUIPA Investigation After City Amends Zoning Code and Allows Church to Meet in Former Moose Lodge
On April 28, the Civil Rights Division closed its investigation of the City of Gainesville, Florida under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), after the city amended its zoning code to remove restrictions on religious assemblies in zoning districts where nonreligious assemblies are permitted and gave permission for a Christian congregation to worship in a former Moose Lodge. The Civil Rights Division had opened an investigation in April 2007 into whether the city’s treatment of the church, Fire of God Ministries, violated RLUIPA.
Fire of God Ministries is a nondenominational Christian church that has conducted public worship services in the Gainesville area since 2001. The church currently leases a building, formerly used as a Moose Lodge. The Moose Lodge was considered a lawful nonconforming use in the single-family residential zone. In February 2006, the church applied for a zoning compliance permit to continue using the building for assembly purposes. The city denied the permit and subsequently issued a notice of violation for using the building for religious assembly without a special use permit. In September 2006, the city informed the church that if the church did not obtain a special use permit within 60 days, the city would impose fines of $100 per day.
The Division then opened an investigation focusing on the city’s requirement that the church obtain a special use permit that nonreligious assemblies such as lodges did not have to obtain. Section 2(b)(1) of RLUIPA provides that “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.”
While the Division’s investigation was pending, the church and the city reached an agreement that will allow the church to continue to operate as a place of worship, and the city amended its zoning code in March to remove the unequal restrictions imposed on religious assemblies.
Since 2001, the Civil Rights Division has reviewed 164 matters involving RLUIPA and has opened 40 full investigations. These have included investigations involving Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist houses of worship and religious schools. The Division also has filed five 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.
United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division