Combating Religious Discrimination And Protecting Religious Freedom

Crimes Against Persons and Property Based on Religion

There is perhaps no religious right as basic as the right to gather for worship or simply walk down the street without fear of being attacked because of one's faith. The Civil Rights Division's Criminal Section, in conjunction with U.S. Attorney's Offices around the country, prosecutes violations of criminal civil rights statutes. In the area of religion-based bias crimes against individuals, these include 18 U.S.C. § 241 (conspiracy to deprive a person of his or her civil rights), 18 U.S.C. § 245 (criminal interference with federally protected activities), 18 U.S.C. 249 (a)(1) (causing or attempting to cause bodily injury because of a person’s  actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin), and 42 U.S.C. § 3631 (criminal interference with housing rights).

Two provisions specifically address vandalism and arson of religious property and interference with persons' exercise of their religion at houses of worship. The Church Arson Prevention Act, 18 U.S.C. § 247, makes it a crime to deface, damage, or destroy religious real property, or interfere with a person's religious practice, in situations affecting interstate commerce. The Act also bars defacing, damaging, or destroying religious property because of the race, color, or ethnicity of persons associated with the property. Additionally, 18 U.S.C. § 248 makes it a crime to, "by force or threat of force or by physical obstruction, intentionally injure[ ], intimidate[ ] or interfere[ ] with or attempt[ ] to injure, intimidate or interfere with any person lawfully exercising or seeking to exercise the First Amendment right of religious freedom at a place of religious worship" or to "intentionally damage[ ] or destroy[ ] the property of a place of religious worship."

Examples of criminal prosecutions involving religion include:

  • United States v. Baker (M.D. Tenn.): Three men pleaded guilty in 2009 to spray-painting swastikas and “white power” on a mosque in Columbia, Tennessee and then lighting fires that completely destroyed the mosque. Two of the men were sentenced to more than 14 years in prison each, and a third to seven years.
  • United States v. Ice (S.D. Ala): A man who spraypainted neo-Nazi markings and threatening anti-Semitic graffiti on a syngagogue in Mobile, Alabama pleaded guilty on March 26, 2010 to violating the Church Arson Prevention Act’s bar on defacing or damaging religious property.
  • United States v. Reid: A Philadelphia woman pleaded guilty in June 2007 to sending a note threatening violence to her supervisor, a Muslim and Arab-American. She was sentenced to eight months confinement in a community corrections center.
  • United States v. Laskey, et al.: Four members of the white supremacist group known as the Volksfront pleaded guilty to throwing rocks with swastikas etched in them through the windows of a synagogue in Eugene, Oregon, during servcies.
  • United States v. Nunez-Flores: A Texas man pleaded guilty to throwing a Molotov cocktail at an El Paso mosque and placing another on its utility meter, resulting in a 171-month prison sentence.
  • United States v. Dropik: A man pleaded guilty to burning two churches because he was angry at African-Americans, resulting in a 63-month sentence.
  • United States v. Bryant and Martin: Two men pleaded guilty to vandalizing a historic African-American church by breaking windows in the sanctuary and smashing items throughout the church, resulting in sentences of 27 and 21 months in prison.
  • United States v. Goldstein et al.: Several individuals conspired to attack an Islamic Center and gathered weapons and explosives to carry out their conspiracy, resulting in a sentence for the lead defendant of 151 months in prison.

If you have been the victim of a bias-related crime, you should contact your local police and the nearest office of the FBI as soon as possible. You also may contact the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division.

Updated August 6, 2015

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