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Religious Freedom In Focus, Volume 11

DOJ seal United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division
April/May 2005
Volume 11

Religious Freedom in Focus is a periodic email update about the Civil Rights Division's religious liberty and religious discrimination cases. Assistant Attorney General R. Alexander Acosta has placed a priority on these 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);

and through participation as intervenor and friend-of-the-court in cases involving the denial of equal treatment based on religion, the Civil Rights Division is working to protect the right of people of all faiths to participate fully in public life.

More information about this initiative, and back issues of this newsletter, may be found on the religious discrimination home page of the Civil Rights Division website. You may also contact the Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination, Eric W. Treene, at (202) 353-8622.



DOJ Asks Court to Permanently Bar New York Public Schools From Religious Discrimination

The Civil Rights Division on May 17 filed a second brief urging a federal court to bar the New York City Public Schools from discriminating against religious speech. The case, Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education of the City of New York, involves the ongoing efforts of a Christian congregation to rent school facilities on Sundays on an equal basis with other civic and community groups.

"Religious groups wishing to rent unused facilities after school hours have the right be treated equally with other community groups," remarked Assistant Attorney General R. Alexander Acosta. "Two Supreme Court decisions and the court of appeals two years ago in this very case have made clear that groups cannot be discriminated against simply because of their religious viewpoints. It is time for the School Board to comply with the courts' mandates."

The city makes school facilities available after hours to groups for "social, civic and recreational meetings and entertainments, and other uses pertaining to the welfare of the community." Under this policy, nearly 10,000 groups per year receive permits for activities at school facilities. Rental for religious services, however, is forbidden by school board regulations. In 1995, Bronx Household sought to rent facilities on Sundays for weekly worship meetings.  The city denied the application. Bronx Household sued in federal court, citing Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District, a 1993 case in which the United States Supreme Court held that a New York school board could not bar a Christian group from showing a film at school after-hours about child rearing from a Christian perspective. The federal trial and appeals court both held that worship was distinct from the film at issue in Lamb's Chapel, and therefore the city was within its rights to deny the application.

In 2001, however, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Good News Club v. Milford Central School, which struck down a policy of an upstate New York town. That policy, which was almost identical to New York City's in this case, was being used to bar a weekly after-school program for children consisting of singing hymns, prayer, Bible lessons and games. The Supreme Court held that the activities of the Good News Club were the equivalent of the "social, civic and recreational meetings and entertainment events, and other uses pertaining to the welfare of the community" that the town of Milford permitted and could not be excluded because they had a religious viewpoint. The Supreme Court found this case indistinguishable from the earlier Lamb's Chapel decision.

Shortly after the Good News Club decision came down, Bronx Household refiled its complaint in federal court against New York City, seeking relief in light of the Supreme Court's decision. The trial court in June 2002 granted Bronx Household a preliminary injunction, finding that it was likely to succeed in its claim. The city appealed, and the United States filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals then upheld the trial court. Since then, as the suit has proceeded, Bronx Household and 22 other congregations have used school facilities for Sunday services.

Despite the holding of the Second Circuit that the reasoning of Good News Club and Lamb's Chapel should apply to this situation, New York continues to fight to deny equal access to the church. The city has asked the trial court to allow it to bar Bronx Household and other congregations permanently from renting school facilities at any time. The city argues that the court of appeals in its prior ruling did not consider all of the facts. For example, the city complains that allowing equal access for churches in fact would discriminate against other religions, because schools are more likely to have unused space on Sunday than on Fridays and Saturdays when Muslim and Jewish congregations might like to hold services. Similarly, the city argues that while there are approximately 10,000 permits given to outside groups in the school system each year, in at least one New York city school the only group that has sought access on weekends is a church. Granting that church access, the city reasons, might lead people to think that churches are favored.

The United States brief argues that the city's arguments are without merit. Allowing equal access cannot be construed somehow to be unequal simply because some groups choose not to use school facilities. Given the fact that the access policy opens school facilities to an extremely wide variety of groups, and that thousands of groups do in fact use school facilities, making this policy truly equal by allowing religious groups to choose to participate cannot be construed to discriminate in favor of religion. As the brief states, quoting the Supreme Court's 1995 Rosenberger decision, "Permitting Bronx Household to rent school facilities on equal terms with others would not violate the Establishment Clause. To the contrary, 'a denial of the right of free speech ... would risk fostering a pervasive bias or hostility to religion, which would undermine the very neutrality that the Establishment Clause requires.'"

Sentencing in Cemetery Desecration Case

On May 2, Sean Andrew Sigley was sentenced to 12 months in prison for conspiring with another man to spray swastikas and anti-Jewish messages on pillars and buildings at the Congregation Shaarie Torah Cemetery in Portland, Oregon.  Sigley, a self-described white supremacist, and co-defendant Steven Hale Smith, admitted that they desecrated the cemetery in May 2003 to intimidate areas Jewish residents. Smith is to be sentenced on June 13.

"There is no place in America for such despicable crimes," said R. Alexander Acosta, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. "The Justice Department is committed to protecting our diverse religious heritage against acts of criminal bigotry."

The case was jointly prosecuted by attorneys from the Civil Rights Division and the United States Attorney's Office for the District of Oregon, and was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Prosecuting the perpetrators of bias-motivated crimes remains a top priority of the Justice Department. Since 2001, the Civil Rights Division has charged 154 defendants in 104 cases of bias-motivated crime. In 2004, the Justice Department brought a record number of criminal civil rights prosecutions.

Civil Rights Division Suit Claims Florida City Discriminated Against Synagogue

The Justice Department filed a suit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA") on April 24 alleging that the City of Hollywood, Florida discriminated against an Orthodox Jewish group. The suit, filed in federal district court in Ft. Lauderdale, alleges that the City discriminated against Chabad Lubavitch by refusing to grant permits for its Hollywood Community Synagogue to hold religious services.

"The Department of Justice respects the freedom of cities and municipalities to set appropriate zoning restrictions, but this freedom must be exercised within the limits of federal law," said R. Alexander Acosta, Assistant Attorney General Acosta. "We must remember that our nation was founded on principles of freedom, which is why Congress unanimously passed RLUIPA and why the Justice Department is resolved to enforce it vigorously."

The Justice Department's complaint alleges that in violation of federal law, the City of Hollywood denied Chabad's application to operate a synagogue in a residential neighborhood.  After initially granting Chabad permits to make significant changes to the property, the city ordered the construction stopped and told Chabad they would have to obtain a special exception to operate a synagogue. After initially granting two exemptions with specific time limits, the City denied a third request for an exemption.  According to the complaint, the City routinely grants variances to houses of worship to operate in residential neighborhoods, but denied such a variance to Chabad. The complaint further alleges that the City currently permits various houses of worship and nonreligious assemblies to operate in residential neighborhoods in violation of the City's zoning regulations, but has prohibited the Chabad Lubavitch group from likewise operating in the neighborhood. The differential treatment of Chabad, the complaint alleges, was due to its religion.

RLUIPA, enacted in 2000, prohibits religious discrimination in land-use and zoning decisions. This is the second ever filed by the Department under the statute. Since 2001, the Civil Rights Division has opened 22 investigations and numerous preliminary inquiries into allegations of religious discrimination. These have included investigations of unequal treatment of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and other congregations. Most of these have been resolved amicably through voluntary modification of potentially discriminatory zoning regulations. More information about RLUIPA can be found on the Civil Rights Division's Housing and Civil Enforcement homepage.

United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

Updated June 7, 2023