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

August 2011
Volume 47
 

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 http://www.justice.gov/crt/spec_topics/religiousdiscrimination. You may also contact the Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination, Eric W. Treene, at (202) 353-8622.

IN THIS ISSUE:

Oregon Man Indicted for Mosque Arson

On August 25, an Oregon man was indicted on federal charges for the arson of a mosque in Corvallis, Oregon in November 2010. Cody Crawford, of Corvallis, was charged under the Church Arson Prevention Act and other federal statutes with intentionally setting fire to the Salman Alfarisi Islamic Center in the early morning hours of November 28, 2010.

On the day of the indictment, Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez said "Burning a house of worship because of hatred toward members of one religion is not just an attack on that religion; it is an attack on our core American values. The Civil Rights Division will aggressively protect the rights of all persons to worship without fear of violence or intimidation."

If convicted, Crawford faces a minimum of 10 years in prison and a maximum of 30 years in prison. An indictment is merely an accusation, and the defendant is presumed innocent unless proven guilty.

Former TSA Employee Pleads Guilty to Assault on Elderly Somali Muslim Man

On August 10, a former employee of the Transportation Security Administration, George Thompson, pleaded guilty to federal hate crime charges for assaulting an 83-year-old Somali man in May 2010. Thompson admitted that he assaulted the man because he believed he was Muslim and Somali, and that he yelled to the victim during the assault that he should go back to Africa.

Thompson, who is 64, pleaded guilty to violating the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, for attacking the victim because of his race and religion. Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, stated on the day the plea was entered that "As this successful prosecution makes clear, acts of violence targeted at individuals because of their race or religion will not be permitted in the United States, and will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."

Thompson faces a maximum of 10 years in prison.

DOJ Reaches Settlement in Georgia Mosque Dispute

On August 29, the Department of Justice filed a proposed consent decree in federal district court in Georgia, resolving allegations that the City of Lilburn violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) when it denied the Dar-E-Abbas Shia Islamic Center's requests for rezoning to construct a mosque. The settlement, which must still be approved by a federal judge in Atlanta, resolves a lawsuit under RLUIPA that the United States filed on August 26.

The city twice denied the Islamic Center's applications to rezone property it owned to build a Mosque, in November 2009, and December 2010. The United States' lawsuit alleged that the city's denials of the rezoning applications were based on the religious bias of city officials and to appease members of the public who opposed the construction of a mosque because of religious bias. The complaint further alleged that non-Muslim religious groups regularly have been granted similar rezoning requests. On August 16, 2011, fulfilling part of its settlement with the United States, the city voted to approve the zoning application.

Under the agreement, the city may not impose different zoning or building requirements on the Islamic Center or other religious groups, and will publicize its nondiscrimination policies and practices. The city also agreed that its leaders, managers, and certain other city employees will receive training on the requirements of RLUIPA. In addition, the city will adopt new procedures that clarify its complaint process for zoning and permitting decisions involving places of worship, and will report periodically to the Justice Department.

"Religious freedom is among our most fundamental rights. Under federal law, cities may not use their zoning laws to discriminate against religious groups seeking to build places of worship," said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. "The Department of Justice will acknowledges and commends the city's decision to ultimately approve the rezoning, and it is pleased that the city has agreed to enter into a decree with the United States that helps ensure that freedom of religion in the United States is a reality for persons of all faiths."

RLUIPA, enacted in 2000, contains a number of different provisions protecting churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other places of worship from discrimination and undue interference with religious exercise through application of zoning and landmarking laws. On the tenth anniversary of RLUIPA on September 22, 2010, the Department of Justice issued a Report on Enforcement of RLUIPA, along with a Statement on RLUIPA with common questions and answers about this important law. More information about RLUIPA is available at the Civil Rights Division Housing and Civil Enforcement Section website.

Court Order Resolves DOJ Suit Over Buddhist Worship Center

On August 4, a federal court in California entered an Agreed Order resolving the United States' claims that the City of Walnut, California violated RLUIPA when it denied a permit to a Buddhist worship center. The suit, United States v. City of Walnut, was filed on September 13, 2010, after the City denied the Chung Tai Zen Center of Walnut a permit to build a worship center.

Under the Walnut zoning code, houses of worship may operate in the area where the Zen Center wanted to build if granted a conditional use permit. The United States' complaint alleged that, until it denied the Zen Center's application in January 2008, the City had not rejected any application for a conditional use permit to build, expand or operate a house of worship since at least 1980. The complaint also alleged that the city treated the Zen Center differently than various non-religious facilities. The suit claimed violation of RLUIPA's nondiscrimination provision, violation of its requirement that religious assemblies and institutions be treated at least as well as nonreligious assemblies and institutions, and also claimed that the denial imposed a substantial burden on the Zen Center's religious exercise. As a result of the city's actions, the Zen Center was forced to leave Walnut and build another house of worship in a neighboring city.

Under the Court's Agreed Order, the City may not impose differential zoning or building requirements on places of worship. In addition, the City's leaders and managers, and certain city employees, must attend training on the requirements of RLUIPA. The city must also adopt new procedures that clarify its appeals process for houses of worship, and will report periodically to the Justice Department. A separate suit filed by the Zen Center against the City will continue.

"Religious freedom is among our most cherished rights, and our nation's laws prohibit cities and towns from discriminating based on religion when they make zoning decisions related to houses of worship," said Thomas Perez, Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Division, the day the order was issued. "We are pleased that we have reached an agreement with the city of Walnut that prohibits inferior treatment of any religious organization that seeks to build a house of worship in compliance with local zoning laws."

On January 11, as reported in Volume 45, the Court rejected a motion to dismiss filed by the City alleging that RLUIPA required the Zen Center to exhaust all local administrative remedies before the City could be sued in federal court. The Court held that no such exhaustion requirement exists under RLUIPA, and that the United States would not be bound by any such requirement even if it did exist.

Department of Justice Files Briefs Defending the Constitutionality of RLUIPA

The Department of Justice filed two briefs this month defending the constitutionality of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA").

On August 15, the Department filed a brief in Holiness is the Way Ministries v. Coweta County, Georgia, a case involving a RLUIPA challenge by a Christian congregation that was denied a conditional use permit to build a church in the county. The county moved to dismiss the complaint on various grounds, including arguing that RLUIPA is unconstitutional. The United States' intervened in the case to defend RLUIPA's constitutionality.

In its brief, the United States argues that RLUIPA is a valid exercise of Congress's explicit power to enact legislation to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment. In addition to protecting against states' denial of equal protection of the laws, the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause incorporates First Amendment protections such as free exercise of religion. The United States' brief recounts the history of RLUIPA, showing that Congress relied on what it termed "'massive evidence' of a pattern of religious discrimination in state and local land use decision," and acted to enforce constitutional protections of religious freedom. The United States' brief additionally argues that RLUIPA is valid under the Commerce Clause and the Spending Clause.

The United States' brief also maintains that RLUIPA does not violate the Tenth Amendment by imposing a federal regulatory program on states, as the county argued. The brief notes, quoting a Court of Appeals decision, that "while RLUIPA may preempt laws that discriminate against or exclude religious institutions entirely, it leaves individual states free to eliminate the discrimination in any way they choose, so long as the discrimination is eliminated."

Finally, the United States' brief argues that RLUIPA does not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. RLUIPA is a permissible accommodation of religion that simply "alleviate[s] significant government interference with the exercise of religion."

On August 1, the United States filed a similar brief in Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka v. City of Wayzata, a RLUIPA case challenging a city's denial of rezoning to allow a congregation to build a new church. The brief, like the Coweta County brief, notes that Congress found a "consistent, widespread pattern of political and governmental resistance to a core feature of religious exercise: the ability to assemble for worship." The brief concludes that RLUIPA is well within Congress's enforcement power under the Fourteenth Amendment and that it respects the separation of powers.

As in the Coweta brief, the United States' brief in Wayzata flatly rejects the argument that RLUIPA violates the Establishment Clause. Quoting the Supreme Court's decision in Hobbie v. Unemployment Appeals Commission (1987), the brief notes that the "Supreme Court has 'long recognized that the government may (and sometimes must) accommodate religious practices and that it may do so without violating the Establishment Clause."

 


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