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Justice Department Files Lawsuit Against Puerto Rico Police Department

DOJ seal United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division
July 2013
Volume 57

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.


The Justice Department filed a civil rights lawsuit on July 22 against the Puerto Rico Police Department, charging that it discriminated against a police officer based on her race, color and religion. The suit, brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, alleges that a coworker harassed the officer on a daily basis for three years because she is black and because she is an evangelical Christian.

Yolanda Carrasquillo has served as a police officer in Puerto Rico since 1993. While the Department has a zero-tolerance policy toward harassment, the complaint alleges that from 2007 to 2010 she faced daily harassment by the coworker, including racial slurs and remarks disparaging her Christian faith. The complaint alleges that although she complained repeatedly about the harassment to her supervisors and that some supervisory officers witnessed the conduct, the Department failed to take action to stop it.

On the day that the complaint was filed, Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels stated: "All workers deserve the freedom to go to work each day without fear of harassment because of their race, color or religion. Public employers should set an example for others by upholding the law and taking prompt and effective action to stop discriminatory harassment. The Department of Justice will vigorously pursue such violations of Title VII."

More information about the Civil Rights Division's enforcement of Title VII is available on the Employment Litigation Section home page.

Guilty Plea in Attack on Sikh Taxi Driver

A Washington man pleaded guilty on June 27 to a hate crime charge for attacking a 50-year-old Sikh immigrant from India who works as a taxi driver. According to papers filed in court, Jamie Larson attacked the driver because of his actual or perceived race, color and national origin.

Larson, a passenger, attacked the driver after arriving at his destination. He grabbed the driver's beard, punching him and stomping on his head and body while uttering racial and ethnic slurs. The driver suffered damage to his back, shoulder and kidney as a result of the attack. He was hospitalized for more than a week and has had to undergo lengthy physical therapy. Larson was arrested at the scene of the attack after a witness called 911.

Larson pleaded guilty in federal court in Seattle to one count of violating the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. 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. Sentencing is scheduled for Larson on November 5, 2013.

"This case is a testament to the Justice Department's dedication to vigorously investigate and prosecute all racially-motivated attacks," said Roy L. Austin Jr., Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, on the day of the plea. "It is unacceptable that violent acts of hate committed because of someone's race and ethnicity continue to occur, and the department will continue to use every available tool to identify and prosecute hate crimes whenever and wherever they occur."

Prison Officials Impermissibly Took Sides on Religious Doctrine Dispute, Brief Contends

South Dakota prison officials impermissibly took sides in a dispute over whether Lakota religious practice requires the use of tobacco in religious ceremonies, the Civil Rights Division argued in a friend-of-the-court brief filed on June 26.

The dispute arose over the South Dakota prison system's decision in 2009 to bar Native American prisoners from using tobacco in religious ceremonies. Prison officials justified the ban by explaining that they had consulted Lakota leaders and had concluded tobacco was "not traditional" and was not required in Lakota worship.

Native American prisoners filed suit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which provides that prison policies that impose a "substantial burden" on religious exercise must be justified by a compelling, narrowly tailored government interest. The prisoners argued that small amounts of tobacco are essential to their religious worship. A federal judge ruled in favor of the prisoners, holding that they are entitled to use a mixture containing small amounts of tobacco mixed with red willow bark, as they had been allowed before the prison system changed its tobacco policies. The prison officials appealed.

In the friend-of-the-court brief, the Civil Rights Division argued that the federal judge was correct. There is a dispute within Lakota Native American religious tradition of whether tobacco is required or not, the Civil Rights Division explained in the brief. But instead of evaluating whether the prisoners had a sincere religious belief in the use of tobacco, as required by RLUIPA, prison officials "consulted spiritual leaders, discovered a doctrinal disagreement about tobacco use, and then took a side in the religious debate." Such an approach impermissibly tried to assess the truth of the prisoners' beliefs, something governments are constitutionally forbidden from doing. Rather, they are required to evaluate only the sincerity of asserted beliefs.

The Civil Rights Division brief also argued that the prison system had not demonstrated that the tobacco ban is a narrowly tailored means to pursue a compelling government interest. The prison system contended that it has a problem with contraband tobacco within the prisons. However, the evidence showed that most of this contraband tobacco is smuggled into the prison through various means and is not traceable to tobacco used for Native American worship. A total ban on even very small amounts of tobacco for religious purposes, such as the 1% mixture ordered by the federal district court here, thus is not narrowly tailored to achieve the goal of controlling contraband, the brief argued.

DOJ Asks Court to Order Kosher Meals for Florida Prisoners

A federal court in Florida should order the Florida Department of Corrections ("FDOC") to provide kosher meals to all prisoners who have a religious need to maintain a kosher diet, the Civil Rights Division argued in a hearing held June 4 and 5. The United States contended at the hearing and in a court filing that a recent FDOC plan to offer kosher meals under certain circumstances, adopted in response to a United States lawsuit, is inadequate and imposes conditions that will prevent many kosher-observant Jews and others who keep kosher from obtaining kosher meals in prison.

The United States filed suit against FDOC in August 2012, challenging its refusal to provide kosher meals to inmates under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA). FDOC is the only large correction system in the country that does not offer kosher meals. While it used to provide kosher meals to 270 prisoners, it discontinued the program in 2007, with the exception of a pilot program started in 2010 that has offered meals to only 8 to 11 prisoners.

Section 3 of RLUIPA forbids state prison practices that "substantially burden" prisoners' religious exercise unless the challenged practice is the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling government interest. The Civil Right Division's suit contends that denying kosher meals "substantially burdened" the religious exercise of those requiring them, and that there was no justifiable reason not to provide the meals.

In response to the lawsuit, in March 2013 FDOC announced that it would implement a kosher food program. However, the Civil Rights Division found that the program failed to ensure that all those needing kosher meals would in fact get them, and asked the court to enter an injunction requiring a more carefully crafted policy. The Civil Rights Division highlighted numerous deficiencies in the program, such as its requirement that individuals wishing to obtain kosher meals eat a non-kosher vegan meal for 30 to 90 days prior to receiving kosher meals, and rules terminating prisoners from the kosher program for skipping meals or purchasing even a single item from the commissary deemed non-kosher by prison authorities. FDOC also reserved the right to discontinue the kosher program at any time, and refused to enter into any type of enforceable agreement or otherwise promise to continue the new kosher diet program in the future.

The Civil Rights Division, in its filing and at the hearing, presented evidence that the Federal Bureau of Prisons and a majority of States offer kosher meals to all prisoners who seek such meals to exercise their religious beliefs. Since Florida's interests in prison security and efficient management are virtually identical to the institutions that provide kosher meals, the United States contends that there is no compelling reason why Florida cannot also provide kosher meals on a similar basis. A decision on the Civil Rights Division's motion is currently pending.

Department of Justice Reaches Settlement With Georgia School District Over Harassment of Sikh Student

A school district in Georgia will adopt a range of measures to prevent harassment of a Sikh middle school student, the Justice Department announced. The Justice Department and the school district announced a settlement agreement on May 7 resolving the Civil Rights Division's investigation of complaints of repeated verbal and physical harassment of the student.

The Civil Rights Division had opened an investigation after receiving complaints that a Sikh student at a charter middle school in the DeKalb County School District had been physically and verbally harassed on an ongoing basis by other students. The student had been called "Aladdin" and "terrorist" because he wore a turban and was told by another student to "go back to his country." The Division found that the district's response had not been effective in ending the harassment, and that the student feared continued harassment.

Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 authorizes the Department of Justice to bring legal proceedings where parents of a student in public school file a complaint with the Department that their child has been denied the equal protection of law by a school district. Failing to take action to address a hostile educational environment based on characteristics such as race or religion can constitute a denial of equal protection. Title IV is enforced by the Civil Rights Division's Educational Opportunities Section.

The school district worked cooperatively with the Civil Rights Division to resolve the complaint and ensure greater protections for the student. The settlement agreement, which will be in effect until the end of the 2014-2015 school year, requires the district to undertake a variety of measures, including working with a consultant to develop and implement anti-harassment training at the student's middle school and future high school, implementing a safety plan for the student to ensure rapid and effective response to incidents, and taking proactive measures to reduce the likelihood of incidents of harassment against the student. The Division has a separate and ongoing inquiry into whether the school district's broader anti-harassment policies meet federal standards, whether its policies are consistently implemented, and whether employees are adequately trained to implement those policies.

"Students of all faiths must be protected from harassment and other forms of discrimination," Jocelyn Samuels, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, said the day the settlement was announced. "We commend the district for stepping forward and putting student safety first. We are encouraged by the district's resolve to support and provide anti-harassment training on issues facing students from the Sikh, Muslim, Arab-American and South Asian communities."

Virginia Teen, Charged as Adult, Sentenced in Church Arson

Jean-Claude Bridges was sentenced to two years in prison on May 2 for setting fire to a church in Axton, Virginia in May 2012. The church, the New Holy Deliverance Outreach Ministry, has a predominantly African-American congregation.

Bridges pleaded guilty to one count of destroying a religious property by fire, in violation of the Church Arson Prevention Act. Bridges admitted in court that he burned down the church because its congregants were African American.

"The freedom to practice the religion that we choose in a safe environment without being subjected to hateful acts is among our nation's most cherished rights," said Roy L. Austin, Jr., Deputy Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. "Anyone who violates this right will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."

Prior to his guilty plea, the court granted a government motion to transfer Bridges, who is 18, to adult status for criminal prosecution. Bridges was 17 at the time that he and another juvenile set fire to the church. In addition to the two year prison sentence, Bridges was sentenced to two years of supervised release and ordered to pay $141,773.68 in restitution.

Civil Rights Division Presents Workshop in Bosnia on Religious Liberty

Attorneys from the Civil Rights Division and a representative from the Department of Homeland Security Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties traveled to Bosnia-Herzegovina on June 4 to provide a three-day "Country-to-Country" workshop on protecting religious freedom and promoting religious tolerance. The program, funded by the State Department, is part of the United States' 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."

The United States and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation worked to obtain consensus on Resolution 16/18, which was adopted in 2011. The resolution 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 take effective measures 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, among other recommendations.

The "Country-to-Country" program follows the December 2011 Experts' Meeting held in the United States, which brought together officials from 26 countries involved in enforcement, drafting, policy, or community engagement relating to anti-discrimination and hate crime laws. At that meeting, participants discussed comparative legal frameworks, comparative enforcement mechanisms and best practices in government engagement with diverse religious communities.

The "Country-to-Country" program in Bosnia was a pilot-program that allowed for a deeper dive into these issues with a wide range of Bosnian officials. Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination Eric Treene and Director of Professional Development Jessica Ginsburg led the program for the Civil Rights Division, along with Senior Policy Advisor Kareem Shora from the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

The workshop gave them the opportunity to share experiences with their counterparts in Bosnia about legal processes for protecting against religious discrimination and preserving religious liberty in employment, education, construction of places of worship, and many other areas. They also discussed the distinction in U.S. law between violence and threats of physical harm against religious institutions and individuals, which can be prosecuted, and speech directed towards religious groups and persons that, while ugly or hurtful, is constitutionally protected and is most effectively countered with positive speech, education, and social pressure rather than legal prohibition.

Based on lessons-learned from the Bosnia program, DHS and DOJ plan on implementing similar programs with additional countries in the future.

United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

Updated May 24, 2023