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

November 2013
Volume 58
 

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:

Utah Man Charged with Firing Gun at Synagogue

On October 30, a Salt Lake City, Utah man was indicted on federal hate crime charges for firing a pistol at the Congregation Kol Ami Synagogue in Salt Lake City. The man, Macon Openshaw, was charged with violation of the Church Arson Prevention Act, 18 U.S.C. § 247, for firing shots at the synagogue with a .22 caliber pistol in 2012. He also was charged with several federal firearm offenses.

The indictment alleges that Openshaw targeted the synagogue because of its religious character, firing shots from a .22 pistol that broke windows and damaged a window frame. The Church Arson Prevention Act makes it a crime to "intentionally deface[ ], damage[ ], or destroy[ ] any religious real property, because of the religious character of that property." Openshaw also was charged with carrying a firearm in relation to a crime of violence, possession of a firearm with obliterated or altered serial number, and possession of a firearm while subject to a protective order.

An indictment is only an accusation, and the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty. If convicted, Openshaw faces up to 20 years in prison.

DOJ Settles Sabbath Accommodation Suit Against Birmingham Police Department

The Civil Rights Division announced on September 25 that it had reached a settlement with the Birmingham, Alabama Police Department in a suit alleging a failure to accommodate the Sabbath of a Messianic Jewish employee. The suit, brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, alleges that a public safety dispatcher was forced to resign after the police department denied her request for a work schedule allowing her to observe the Sabbath from sunset Friday through sunset Saturday.

Title VII requires that employers make a reasonable accommodation of employee's religious observances and practice unless the employer can prove that this would impose an "undue hardship" on its operations. Gunn, who had worked as a dispatcher from 2008 through 2011, requested an accommodation when her assigned shifts conflicted with her religious belief that she is forbidden to work on the Sabbath. According to the United States' complaint, police officials told Gunn that they do not change days off for any religious faith.

"Employees should not have to choose between practicing their religion and their jobs," Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels stated on the day the settlement was announced. "This case highlights the obligation of an employer to engage in an interactive process to understand and work with an employee in finding an accommodation of the employee's religious beliefs that will not cause undue hardship to the employer. We commend the City of Birmingham for working cooperatively with the Justice Department to reach this agreement."

Under the terms of the settlement, which must be approved by the Court, Gunn will be reinstated and given back pay, and the city will develop and implement a religious accommodation policy for all employees that will meet its obligations under Title VII, and will train police department employees on the policy.

More information about the Civil Rights Division cases regarding religious discrimination in employment is available on the Employment Litigation Section website.

Civil Rights Division Participates in Religious Liberty Conference in Indonesia

Attorneys from the Civil Rights Division and the Department of Homeland Security participated in a joint U.S.-Indonesian conference on protecting protecting religious freedom and promoting religious tolerance in Nusa Dua Indonesia on September 18-20. The program, sponsored by the State Department, is part of the United States' ongoing efforts to implement UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Resolution 16/18 on "Combating Intolerance, Negative Stereotyping and Stigmatization of, and Discrimination, Incitement to Violence and Violence Against, Persons Based on Religion and Belief."

Resolution 16/18, adopted in 2011, focuses on concrete, positive measures that states can take to combat religious bias and intolerance instead of legal measures to restrict speech. For example, the resolution calls on states to prevent discrimination based on religion, to protect the ability of members of all religious communities to exercise their faith and participate fully in society, to speak out against religious hatred and intolerance, and to foster greater outreach by governments to diverse religious communities.

The U.S.-Indonesian conference brought together representatives from the Civil Rights Division, the Department of Homeland Security Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, and the U.S.-based Sikh Coalition, along with forty-six Indonesian government officials, religious leaders, and representatives of Indonesian non-governmental organizations. The Indonesian participants included members of the Catholic, Protestant, Ahmaddiya, Bahai, and Shia communities. Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels led the U.S. delegation, along with Aaron Schuham, Chief of the Policy and Strategy Section, Ehsan Zafar, Senior Policy Advisor with the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, and Rajdeep Singh, Washington Director of the Sikh Coalition.

The conference included overviews and discussion of the history of civil rights and religious liberty in the U.S., the history of pluralism in Indonesia, and panels exploring issues such as employment discrimination, laws protecting religious communities' ability to build houses of worship, and the importance of protecting free expression while countering intolerance and discrimination. The conference also included comprehensive sessions on engaging diverse religious communities, including a presentation in which the representatives from the Sikh Coalition and DHS demonstrated how specific issues had been addressed through community engagement in the U.S. A similar program was held in June in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and upcoming workshops are slated for a number of other countries.

Indictment in Threat Against Synagogue

On August 26, Dominique Jason Flanigan was indicted on federal charges for making a telephone threat against employees of Temple Beth El in Fargo, North Dakota. Flanigan was charged with using violence or the threat of violence to interfere with federally protected employment rights in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 245, and charged with making a threatening interstate communication.

The indictment alleges that Flanigan called the synagogue and left a threatening voice mail message directed at the synagogue and its employees based on their religion on January 4, 2011.

An indictment is merely an allegation, and a defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Trial is set for January 7, 2014. If convicted, Flanigan faces up to 5 years in prison based on the interstate threat count and one year on the civil rights count.

 


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