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Brewer, Maine Amends Zoning Code In Response To RLUIPA Investigation

DOJ seal United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division
April 2013
Volume 56

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 You may also contact the Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination, Eric W. Treene, at (202) 353-8622.


On April 22, the Civil Rights Division closed its investigation of Brewer, Maine under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), after the city amended its zoning code to treat religious assemblies equally with nonreligious assemblies. The Civil Rights Division opened an investigation in August 2012 after receiving a complaint that the city denied a church's application for permission to expand within a strip mall in a commercial district.

Rock Church is a Christian church that opened approximately six years ago in Bangor. It quickly outgrew its space, and its leadership decided to open a second location in Brewer. In September 2009, Rock Church leased space in the City Center Mall, a strip mall located in Brewer's Convenience Business District. The leased space included a small cafe, a sanctuary, office, and storage room. In early 2012, Rock Church and the strip mall's owner were in the process of renegotiating the lease to provide more space within the mall for Rock Church. When the church applied for a renovation permit, the city informed it that churches were not a permitted use in the Convenience Business District. While barring churches entirely, the district allowed clubhouses and clubs, community service organizations, theaters, indoor recreation facilities, night clubs, funeral homes, and child care centers upon site plan approval.

The church closed its operations in Brewer and re-combined with its Bangor congregation. The landlord filed a lawsuit against Brewer under RLUIPA in U.S. District Court, claiming that the city had violated Section 2(b)(1) of RLUIPA, which 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." The suit also claimed that the city's zoning ordinance violated RLUIPA Section 2(b)(3), which bars governments from imposing or implementing any land use regulation that "unreasonably limits religious assemblies, institutions, or structures within a jurisdiction." This suit was dismissed as not ripe on November 19, 2012.

The United States opened a RLUIPA investigation of Brewer's zoning code on August 21, 2012, seeking information about the treatment of religious and nonreligious assemblies by the city.

On September 11, 2012, the Brewer City Council amended its zoning code to permit churches in the Convenience Business District with a site use plan. Then, in February 2013, the City Council amended the zoning code to treat churches at least as well as nonreligious assemblies in all districts. Churches are now allowed as of right or with a site use plan in the vast majority of zoning districts within the city. In response to these changes, the Civil Rights Division closed the investigation.

RLUIPA, enacted in 2000, contains a number of different provisions protecting churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other religious institutions and assemblies 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 the Land Use Provisions of RLUIPA with common questions and answers about this important law. More information about the land use sections of RLUIPA is available at the Civil Rights Division Housing and Civil Enforcement Section website.

Update: Twenty-Year Sentence in Mosque Arson Case

On April 16, a federal judge in Cleveland, Ohio sentenced an Indiana man to 20 years in prison for the arson of the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo. As previously reported, Randolph Lynn of St. Joe, Indiana, pleaded guilty in December 2012 to federal charges for entering the mosque on September 30, 2012 with a container of gasoline and a gun, pouring the gas on the rug in the prayer hall, and settting it on fire, causing extensive damage to the mosque.

Lynn pleaded guilty to violating the Church Arson Prevention Act, as well as using fire to commit a felony and carrying a firearm to commit a felony. On the day of the sentencing, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Roy L. Austin, Jr. said: "The Civil Rights Division will continue to partner with the FBI and U.S. Attorney's Offices around the country to ensure that anyone who desecrates or burns a place of religious worship because of the creed practiced there is brought to justice."

Washington Man Indicted on Federal Hate Crime Charge for Attack on Sikh Man

On April 2, a federal grand jury in Seattle indicted Jamie Larson, 49, on a federal hate crime charge relating to a racially-motivated assault of a 50-year-old Sikh man.

Larson was charged with one count of violating the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, enacted in October 2009. The indictment alleges that on October 17, 2012, the subject assaulted the victim based on his actual and perceived race, color and national origin. The defendant was arrested at the scene of the attack after a witness called 911.

The Shepard-Byrd law criminalizes acts of physical violence causing bodily injury motivated by a person's actual or perceived race, color, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability.

The charge carries a statutory maximum of 10 years in prison. The case is being prosecuted by attorneys from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Washington and the Civil Rights Division's Criminal Section. The matter is being investigated by the Seattle Division of the FBI. An indictment is merely an accusation, and the subject is presumed innocent unless proven guilty.

Appeals Court Upholds Prisoner's Right to Wear Quarter-Inch Beard

On April 2, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld a lower court ruling that a Muslim prisoner in Texas had a right to wear a quarter-inch beard for religious reasons under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The appeals court agreed that the prisoner had proven that denying him the short beard, which other prisoners with skin conditions were allowed to maintain, violated RLUIPA because it was not the least restrictive way for the prison to further its interests in controlling costs and preserving security. The United States had filed a friend of the court brief and argued as amicus in the case, urging that the appeals court affirm the ruling that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) had not met its burden of showing that its policy was the least restrictive means to meet its objectives.

While Texas generally requires prisoners to be cleanshaven, approximately 7,000 Texas inmates with a skin condition making shaving difficult are permitted to wear quarter-inch beards. Willie Lee Garner, a Muslim prisoner, believes that he has a religious obligation to wear a beard, and has been disciplined for refusing to remain cleanshaven. He sought an exemption to the no-beards policy to permit him to wear a quarter-inch beard, and filed suit under RLUIPA after it was denied.

The institutionalized persons section of RLUIPA provides that prison regulations that impose a "substantial burden" on an inmate's religious exercise may only be enforced if they serve a compelling governmental justification and do so through the means that are the least restrictive of religious exercise. The burden is on the prisoner to demonstrate a substantial burden, and if he can do so, the burden shifts to the prison to show that denying an accommodation to the prisoner is the least restrictive means to further a compelling governmental interest.

After a bench trial before the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, the court held that Garner had proven that he had a sincere religious belief to wear a beard which was substantially burdened by denying him an exemption and that the State had not shown that this was the least restrictive means to further its interest in controlling costs and preserving security.

Affirming the district court, the Fifth Circuit held that while it is undisputed that controlling prison costs is a compelling government interest, the State had not proven that denying Garner the quarter-inch beard was the least restrictive means to achieve its cost-controlling interests. The court held that testimony from prison officials that costs would increase, without any studies or analysis of precisely how costs would increase, was insufficient. The court noted that the TDCJ "has not attempted to approximate the amount of those costs, and it has not presented any concrete evidence concerning how other operations in the prison system would be affected by these increased costs. Such speculative testimony cannot satisfy TDCJ's burden."

The court likewise held that TDCJ had not shown that denying the quarter-inch beard was the least restrictive way to further its interest in security. While TDCJ claimed that prisoners with a quarter-inch beard could change their appearance by shaving in order to escape detection for infractions in the prison, Garner demonstrated at trial that prisoners could also change their appearance by shaving their heads, but that there is no record of any prisoner changing his appearance by any means other than changing clothes. Garner also put on an expert witness with substantial corrections experience who testified that beards have not proven to create a problem with identification in other prison systems, such as the Federal Bureau of Prisons, that allow the wearing of beards.

More information about the institutionalized persons provision of RLUIPA may be found at the Special Litigation Section's RLUIPA page.

Agreement Reached to Resolve Mosque Construction Dispute in Lomita, California

On March 8, a federal judge in California entered an agreed order settling the United States' RLUIPA lawsuit against a California city over its denial of approval for construction of a mosque. The lawsuit, filed along with the agreed order on February 1, alleged that the City of Lomita, located in Los Angeles County south of the City of Los Angeles, violated RLUIPA when it denied a request by the Islamic Center of the South Bay to take down the aging and inadequate structures on its property where it currently worships and construct a new mosque.

Since 1985, the Islamic Center has owned and used the property along what is now the Pacific Coast Highway for prayer services, educational programs, fellowship, and other religious activities. Because of the age, size and layout of the structures on its property, some congregants had to pray outdoors under tents and in small outbuildings scattered across the property rather than praying together in the prayer hall. Members complained that in addition to violating their belief that they should worship together, the current arrangements, particularly in cold or inclement weather, created distractions that interfered with their worship. There also is insufficient space for ritual washing required before prayer. Space and weather constraints frequently prevented the Islamic Center from hosting weddings, educational programs, and other fellowship activities that are important to the members' religious exercise.

In 2008 the Islamic Center submitted an application to take down the various buildings and tents on its property and construct a single building to serve as mosque with space for a prayer hall, washing facilities, a library, classrooms, office space, and other rooms. The new center would serve the same number of congregants who currently worship on the property. Despite recommendations from city staff that the project be approved, the Lomita City Council denied the Islamic Center's application in 2010. The United States' lawsuit alleged that this denial, which has the effect of requiring the congregants to continue to worship in inadequate facilities, imposed a "substantial burden" on the religious exercise of the Islamic Center and its members without sufficient justification in violation of RLUIPA.

Commenting on the case the day the agreed order was lodged with the federal court, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas E. Perez stated, "Religious freedom is among our most fundamental rights, and there are few aspects of that right more basic than the ability of a religious community to come together for worship and fellowship in a decent and appropriate setting on its own property."

Under the agreed order, which incorporates portions of a related agreement between the city and the Islamic Center, the city has agreed to consider a renewed building application by the Islamic Center on an expedited schedule. City leaders will also attend RLUIPA training and the city will periodically report to the Justice Department.

United States Closes Investigation Over Access to Religious Literature After County Jail Implements Changes

On February 20, the Civil Rights Division closed an investigation into allegations that a county jail in Tennessee was denying Muslim prisoners access to religious texts and articles, after the county entered an agreement with the United States and implemented policy changes.

In October 2011, the Division opened an investigation of the Sullivan County Jail in Blountville, Tennessee, after receiving complaints about access to religious written materials. The investigation was brought under RLUIPA's institutionalized persons section, which provides that prisons and jails may not engage in practices that "substantially burden" prisoners' religious exercise unless the challenged practice is the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling government interest. After conducting a thorough investigation, including a visit to the facility, interviews of Sheriff's deputies and prisoners, and review of policies, procedures, and records of prisoner requests for religious accommodations, the Division determined that Sullivan County Jail was violating RLUIPA.

On June 4, 2012, the Division entered into an agreement with the County to correct these violations. The County committed to make modifications to its policies and procedures regarding religious accommodations and to provide training to staff on the new practices regularly. The County moved swiftly to implement the policy changes, and the Division monitored a sample of inmate requests for accommodations and grievances related to religious practice for the six-month period following the implementation of the revised policies. The review indicated that reforms required by the agreement have been effective, and, on February 20, 2013, the Division notified the County that it was in compliance with the agreement.

Update: Sentencings in Attack on Amish Men and Women in Ohio

On February 8, a federal judge sentenced 16 defendants to prison sentences ranging from a year and a day to fifteen years for a series of assaults against Amish men and women with whom they had ongoing religious disputes. They had been convicted on September 20, 2012 of federal hate crimes and other charges by a jury in Cleveland, Ohio.

The jury found the 16 defendants guilty of conspiring to violate the Matthew Shepard-James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which includes a prohibition on willfully causing bodily injury to any person, or attempting to do so by use of a dangerous weapon, because of the actual or perceived religion of that person. In three of the assaults, defendants invaded the homes of the victims, sheared their hair or beards, and caused pain and physical injuries. The manner in which Amish men wear their beards and Amish women wear their hair are symbols of their faith, as noted in trial testimony. The attacks were carried out by the bishop of the Amish community in Bergholz, Ohio, and 15 of his followers against other members of the Ohio Amish community.

On the day of the sentencing, Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez stated, "The Department of Justice and the Civil Rights Division will vigorously defend every American's right to worship in the manner of their choosing, including the members of the defendants' community. However, violent assaults are not a form of religious expression. The actions of the defendants were designed to terrorize the victims, desecrate sacred symbols of their faith, and interfere with their right to worship. These prosecutions reflect the fact that the Department of Justice will not tolerate religiously motivated violence."

Maryland Church's RLUIPA Rights May Have Been Violated, Appeals Court Rules

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled on January 31 that a federal trial court erred in rejecting a suit brought by a church alleging that Montgomery County, Maryland violated RLUIPA when it denied it the right to build an 800-seat church on 119 acres that it owns in the county. The United States had filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, Bethel World Outreach Ministries v. Montgomery County, alleging that the trial court had applied the wrong standard in evaluating whether the zoning denial imposed a "substantial burden" on Bethel World Outreach Ministries' religious exercise in violation of RLUIPA.

Bethel World Outreach Ministries currently serves a congregation of 2,000 by holding multiple services at two locations in Montgomery County. Even with multiple services, Bethel alleges, its ushers have to turn people away and it has had to shorten their services and curtail various activities including some Sunday School classes, alter calls and communion. In 2004, the church purchased a 119-acre parcel of land in the county in a zone that at the time permitted churches. The church began the process of planning construction of a large church. Subsequent zoning changes had the effect of blocking the development.

The church brought suit under various sections of RLUIPA, including a claim that the county had imposed a substantial burden on its religious exercise in violation of RLUIPA Section 2(a). The U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland granted summary judgment for the county, holding that in order to establish a substantial burden, the church had to demonstrate that the county's actions "put substantial pressure on [it] to modify [its] behavior and to violate its beliefs." The church appealed to the Fourth Circuit, and the United States filed a brief and argued before the court that the trial court's RLUIPA standard, drawn from RLUIPA cases in the prisoner context, was inappropriate in the land-use context.

The Fourth Circuit agreed that the trial court had applied too narrow a conception of "substantial burden" in requiring that the government restriction on a church "violate its religious beliefs." Rather, the court observed "every one of our sister circuits to have considered the question has held that, in the land use context, a plaintiff can succeed on a substantial burden claim by establishing that a government regulation puts substantial pressure on it to modify its behavior." Here, the court noted, the church "has presented considerable evidence that its current facilities inadequately serve its needs," including evidence of overcrowding, ushers turning away congregants, shortening of services, elimination of important elements of services, and foregoing various religious educational programs. The court thus reversed the trial court and sent the case back for further proceedings.

United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

Updated May 31, 2023