Religious Freedom in Focus is a periodic email update about the Civil Rights Division's religious liberty and religious discrimination 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);
the Civil Rights Division is working to protect the right of all people to practice their faiths freely and without discrimination.
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:
Federal Court Permits Religious Headscarf Accommodation Suit to Proceed
On February 16, a New Jersey federal court ruled that a suit brought by the Civil Rights Division on behalf of a Muslim corrections officer stated a claim of religious discrimination and could proceed. The suit, brought in June 2009, alleges that Essex County, New Jersey violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it refused to permit a Muslim woman corrections officer to wear a religiously mandated headscarf, or khimar, while working at a county jail.
Title VII prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin or religion. Its religious discrimination provisions include a requirement that employers make a reasonable accommodation of employees’ religious observances and practices. The Justice Department enforces Title VII’s prohibitions against employment discrimination with respect to state and local governments.
The United States’ suit, filed with the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, alleges that the Essex County Department of Corrections first suspended Yvette Beshier, and then terminated her, on the ground that her khimar violated its uniform policy for corrections officers. The complaint alleges that Beshier had requested a religious accommodation that would permit her to wear her khimar, but the Department of Corrections denied her request.
The County moved to dismiss the case in August on the grounds that the United States’ complaint failed to state a legal claim of employment discrimination. The court rejected the county’s arguments, holding that “the Court easily finds” that the United States had set forth a “cognizable claim.”
The suit seeks a court order requiring Essex County to adopt a policy that reasonably accommodates the religious observances and practices of employees and prospective employees who are subject to the uniform policy for corrections officers. The suit also seeks monetary damages and other relief for Beshier.
The Civil Rights Division is committed to actively enforcing Title VII’s prohibitions against religious discrimination. Last February, the Division obtained court approval of a settlement agreement with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority requiring the authority to adopt a religious accommodation policy to its uniform requirements for bus drivers, and providing relief to a prospective Apostolic Pentecostal employee and two Muslim employees who required religious accommodations. The Division also has a pending suit against the New York City Transit Authority alleging it has discriminated against Muslims, Sikhs and other employees through its uniform policy. More information about these and other Title VII cases is available at the Employment Litigation Section homepage.
Investigation of Zoning Denial of Buddhist Temple Closed After Settlement
On February 22, the Civil Rights Division notified the City of Garden Grove, California that it was closing its investigation of the City’s denial of zoning approval for a Buddhist temple in light of the City’s agreement to allow the temple to operate. The Civil Rights Division opened the investigation in 2007 under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), after the city denied the Vietnamese Buddhism Study Temple a zoning permit to operate in the city’s business district.
The Vietnamese Buddhism Study Temple in America, also known as Chua Quan Am, has operated in Orange County, California, since 1999. The Temple comprises both monastic and lay members who practice daily meditation, recite sacred texts, prepare ritualized meals, hold repentance ceremonies, and offer prayers. The Temple’s sangha, or monastic members, are required to live at the temple so as to be in the presence of Temple’s Abbott.
In December 2004, the Temple applied to the city planning commission for permission to convert a commercial building that was formerly used as a medical center and is located in office-professional zone into a house of worship. The city agreed that the Temple’s proposed new structure satisfied the city’s criteria for churches and other religious facilities, but denied the Temple a permit, citing traffic and parking concerns. The Temple filed suit in federal court and obtained a preliminary injunction granting it permission to use its property as a temple. Section 2(b) of RLUIPA prohibits state or local land use regulations that treat a religious assembly or institution on “less than equal terms” than a nonreligious assembly or institution. It also prohibits using state or local land use regulations to discriminate against any assembly or institution on the basis of religion or religious denomination.
The Division opened an independent RLUIPA investigation, and requested information from the City about other permitted religious uses in the area. The Division also interviewed city officials and visited the temple as well as other properties in Garden Grove.
While the Division’s investigation was pending, the Temple and the City entered into a settlement agreement resolving the Temple’s RLUIPA action. Pursuant to the terms of that agreement, the City has granted the Temple permission to use its property for religious worship. The City also agreed to pay $145,000 to the temple in attorneys’ fees.
RLUIPA protects individuals, places or worship, and other religious institutions zoning from discrimination in the application of zoning and landmarking laws. More information about the Division’s RLUIPA land use cases may be found at the Housing and Civil Enforcement Section homepage.
Update on Sentencings in Tennessee Mosque Arson
On March 25, Eric Ian Baker is scheduled to be sentenced for his role in arson of the Islamic Center of Columbia, Tennessee. Baker and two other men, Michael Corey Golden and Jonathan Edward Stone, pleaded guilty last year to starting a fire that burned the mosque to the ground. Stone’s sentencing has not been scheduled. On November 23, 2009, Golden was sentenced to 14 years and three months in prison and three years of supervised released for his role in the incident
The three men pleaded guilty last year to destruction of religious property in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 247 and use of fire in the commission of a felony. In the incident, the three men spray painted swastikas and “white power” on the mosque and ignited Molotov cocktails, starting a fire that completely destroyed the mosque. Golden and Stone each face up to 30 years imprisonment.
United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division