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Religious Freedom In Focus, Volume 15

DOJ seal United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

Dec 2005/Jan 2006
Volume 15

Religious Freedom in Focus is a periodic email update about the Civil Rights Division's religious liberty and religious discrimination cases. The Civil Rights Division 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.


Indiana School District Agrees to Give Students Excused Absences for Religious Holidays

On January 5, the Civil Rights Division closed its investigation into an Indiana school district’s refusal to grant a student excused absences for religious holidays, after a settlement agreement between the student and the school district became final in December. Under the agreement, the District has changed its attendance policy to permit students to miss school for religious holidays without facing any punishment or academic penalty.

Under its prior policy, the Tri-Creek School District permitted only one day of excused absence per year for religious holidays. In the 2004 - 2005 school year, an eighth grader who missed nine days of school to observe the holidays of his church, the United Church of God, received eight unexcused absences. He was notified that he faced expulsion due to excessive absenteeism, and his mother was threatened with child-neglect charges. Some of his teachers refused to allow him to make up classwork and gave him zeroes for the missed work.

The boy and his mother filed a complaint with the Civil Rights Division. They also filed suit against the school district, claiming deprivation of his constitutional rights. The Division opened an investigation of the matter and on August 10, 2005 filed a brief in the suit in support the student. The brief pointed out that the school permitted more than one excused absence in a variety of circumstances, including death in the family, attendance at the State Fair, service as a page at the State Legislature, and in other cases at the discretion of the principal. In light of these other exemptions, the brief argued, denying similar treatment for religious absences violated the Free Exercise Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.

The student and the school district reached a settlement, and the district adopted a new policy governing absences for religious holidays. Under the new policy, students will be given excused absences for observance of religious holidays, and they will be given credit for timely completion of make-up work.

“This is an important victory for religious rights, and especially minority religious rights,” said Wan J. Kim, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “School is in session during many important religious holidays of diverse faiths, and students should not be forced to choose between their faith and their academic standing.”

Guilty Plea in Temple Attack

On December 13, an Oregon man pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge for his role in a 2002 incident in which he and three other white supremacists threw rocks etched with swastikas through the windows of the Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, Oregon. The man, who is cooperating with prosecutors, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate the civil rights of the temple members in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 241. The remaining defendants, brothers Jacob Albert Laskey and Gabriel Doyle Laskey, and Gerald Anthony Poundstone, are scheduled to be tried on conspiracy charges on January 24. Jacob Laskey faces additional charges of two counts of obstruction of justice and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Poundstone also faces an obstruction of justice charge.

Consent Decree Reached in Housing Harassment Case

The Department reached a consent decree on January 18 in a Fair Housing Act case against an Illinois man for harassing his next-door neighbors because of their religion and national origin. The Department brought the case last March, alleging that, starting shortly after a family moved into a Chicago neighborhood, Peter Altmayer engaged in a persistent pattern of harassment because the family is Jewish, and because the father is of Israeli origin and the mother of Mexican origin. The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing based on race, color, sex, religion, national origin, disability or familial status.

Under the settlement, Altmayer will pay $15,000 to the family, attend Fair Housing training, and refrain from any future harassment based on race or national origin. The case was handled by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois, with support from the Civil Rights Division.

“This consent decree underscores that in this country people are entitled to live where they choose without ethnic or religious harassment,” said Wan J. Kim, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “We will continue to ensure equal housing opportunities for all through vigorous enforcement of the Fair Housing Act.”

Division Supports Equal Access to Library Community Room

The Civil Rights Division filed a brief on November 22 with a federal appeals court supporting a California religious group’s claim that it was unlawfully barred from using the community room of the local library. The brief, filed with the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, contends that the Contra Costa County library’s refusal to provide the group, Faith Center Church Evangelistic Ministries, with equal access to its community room violated the First Amendment of the Constitution.

The Contra Costa County Library has a policy permitting community groups to use various meeting rooms at the library branches for holding meetings free of charge. The Antioch Branch Library has allowed its community room to be used by a wide range of groups, including Narcotics Anonymous, the Sierra Club, and the East Contra Costa Democratic Club. However, when Faith Center sought to hold a four-hour meeting, half of which would be a worship service, the library denied the application on the grounds that worship was not permitted.

Faith Center filed suit in federal court. The trial court ruled in its favor, finding that barring its religious speech, but permitting a wide variety of other political, educational, and social speech in the community room, violated the First Amendment. The library appealed.

The United States filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the appeals court. In its brief, the United States argues that the Supreme Court clearly held in Good News Club v. Milford (2001) that when the government opens space up to community groups for speech on a wide variety of matters of interest to the community, it cannot discriminate against community groups wishing to engage in religious speech. The brief contends that the fact that the library was only trying to exclude speech that it deemed “worship” does not change the outcome; it is still protected speech, and, moreover, it is speech that falls within the parameters of the forum. The brief notes: “religious worship . . . involves educational, cultural, and community aspects [and thus] meets the purposes established by the County for the library meeting rooms. Religious worship is also communicative. This is readily apparent when a leader preaches or reads to the congregation, but even corporate worship activities such as hymns and prayers are expressions among believers, and to observers, of their common faith.” The brief also contends that the county’s efforts to distinguish between religious speech, which it would allow, and religious worship, which it would exclude, invites the government to delve into religious matters, which is constitutionally problematic.

The brief stresses that the county library controls its facilities and that the Constitution does not require it to permit its premises to be dominated by private groups. The county had expressed concern that worship activities make too much noise, and that some patrons might be offended by worship activities, particularly if they were audible from outside the room. But this is a concern for any of the political or public policy-related uses of the space, the brief asserts, because a patron could be offended overhearing any such groups. The library is free to place viewpoint-neutral restrictions on the use of the room; it just may not discriminate. As the brief notes, “The County may make and enforce neutral rules to avoid disturbing other patrons, such as noise limitations, or limitations on how frequently one group may use the room, but may not discriminate on the basis of viewpoint.”

The case, Faith Center Church Evangelistic Ministries v. Glover, will be argued on February 17 in San Francisco.

Brief Contends that Higher Education Scholarship Program Unconstitutionally Discriminates Against Religion

On December 1, the Civil Rights Division filed a friend-of-the-court brief in federal district court arguing that a Colorado scholarship program’s exclusion of students attending a nondenominational Christian school violated the Constitution.

Colorado has a scholarship program providing tuition assistance to low-income students attending private and public colleges and universities within the state. Under the program, the state has permitted students to use their scholarships to attend Regis University, a Jesuit school. But while students at certain religious schools may receive scholarships, the state bars students from using the scholarship at schools it deems to be “pervasively sectarian.” The state thus found students at Colorado Christian University, a nondenominational school with approximately 2,000 students, and which features majors including accounting, mathematics, history, and theology, to be ineligible for scholarships because the school was “pervasively sectarian.”

The University filed suit against the state officials administering the program, claiming discrimination in violation of the Equal Protection Clause, the Establishment Clause, and the Free Exercise Clause. The United States’ brief argues that all three clauses were violated by the Colorado officials’ actions. First, the Equal Protection Clause is violated when government employs a suspect classification such as religion without compelling justification. Second, the Establishment Clause bars preferring one religious sect over another absent compelling justification. And third, compelling justification is also necessary under the Free Exercise Clause before the government may discriminate against particular religions, or against religion generally.

The defendants claim that denying scholarships to students at “pervasively sectarian” schools avoids entangling government and religion. However, the United States’ brief contends that “[t]he clearest way to avoid entanglement is to allow students to choose schools that meet various objective, religion-neutral criteria. Defendants instead have chosen to enter the dangerous thicket of deciding what is too religious and what is permissibly religious.” Because of this, and because the Supreme Court has repudiated the “pervasively sectarian” concept on which defendants rely, the brief contends that defendants’ actions violate the Constitution.

The United States’ brief also notes that this case, which involves a scholarship bar that applies regardless of a student’s major, is distinguishable from the Supreme Court’s decision in Locke v. Davey (2004), which involved a bar on state scholarships being used for training ministers. The Supreme Court in Locke relied on the long history of the principle that states may decline to fund the training of ministers. Colorado’s bar, however, extends to all students at religious schools like Colorado Christian University, whether majoring in business or engineering, musical performance or philosophy. Colorado’s bar thus “[i]s not limited only to the historical exclusion of minister training but applies to an entire category of institutions and all fields of secular and religious study offered,” the brief contends.

The case is Colorado Christian University v. Weaver, No. Civ. 04-cv-02512 (D. Colo).

United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

Updated August 6, 2015