Religious Freedom In Focus, Volume 17

DOJ seal United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

April/May 2006
Volume 17

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.


Appeals Court Reinstates Sabbath Accommodation Suit

On April 19, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that a New York trial court was wrong to dismiss the suit of a Home Depot employee fired for refusing to work on the Sabbath. The Civil Rights Division and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had filed a joint friend-of-the-court brief in the appeals court in June 2005 arguing that the trial court erred in finding that Home Depot’s offer of Sunday mornings–but not Sunday afternoons–off was a reasonable accommodation of his need to refrain from work on Sundays.

The employee, Bradley Baker, is a member of the Full Gospel Fellowship Church. His faith bars him from working on Sundays. Home Depot accommodated his religious needs for more than a year by not scheduling him for Sunday work. After his supervisor died, however, a new manager began requiring him to work Sundays, but offered him Sunday mornings off to attend worship. When he insisted that attending worship was not the only issue, but working on the Sabbath as well, he was fired. Baker filed suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII requires employers to make a “reasonable accommodation” of an employee’s religious beliefs and practices, unless doing so would be an undue hardship on the employer. The trial court concluded that Home Depot had made a reasonable accommodation by offering to let Baker attend worship services. Baker appealed.

The Civil Rights Division and EEOC’s appeals brief asserted that “a company’s offer is not a reasonable accommodation unless it removes the conflicts between the employee’s work duties and his reasonable beliefs.” Since there was not merely a conflict between his work and church services, but between work and his sincere belief that he cannot work on the Sabbath, the brief argued, the offer of Sunday mornings off was not a reasonable accommodation. Home Depot thus either would have to give him Sundays off, or demonstrate that doing so would be an undue hardship on their business operations.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the arguments of the Civil Rights Division and the EEOC. The court held that “the shift change offered to Baker was no accommodation at all because, though it would allow him to attend morning church services, it would not permit him to observe his religious requirement to abstain from work totally on Sundays. Simply put, the offered accommodation cannot be considered reasonable because it does not eliminate the conflict between the employment requirement and the religious practice.” The Court thus remanded the case to the trial court to determine if accommodating Baker would cause undue hardship on Home Depot.

Florida Court Permits Synagogue Discrimination Suit to Go Forward

A federal court in Florida has ruled that a lawsuit brought by the Civil Rights Division alleging that the City of Hollywood discriminated against an Orthodox Jewish synagogue may move forward. On May 10, Judge Joan A. Lenard rebuffed an effort by the city to have the case dismissed. The suit, brought under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), alleges that the city discriminated against the Hollywood Community Synagogue based on religion in denying it a permit to operate.

The Civil Rights Division filed suit in April 2005, alleging that the city violated RLUIPA when it denied the synagogue a zoning permit to operate in a residential district. The suit alleged that city officials routinely granted similar permits to houses of worship of other religious faiths, but denied Hollywood Community Synagogue’s because of its Orthodox Jewish faith. The suit also alleged that the type of zoning treatment sought by the synagogue was granted to a range of secular assemblies.

The city filed a motion to have the United States’ suit dismissed, along with a suit brought by the synagogue that was consolidated with the United States’ suit. (Click here for the United States’ response.) The court rejected the city’s arguments, holding that the United States had set forth adequate allegations which, if proven, would establish an RLUIPA violation. The court also rejected the city’s claim that it was insufficient for the United States merely to show that the city had discriminated against the synagogue, but that it also must show that the discrimination was a “substantial burden” on the synagogue members’ religious exercise. The court held that proving that the city deliberately treated the synagogue differently because its members were Orthodox Jews itself would violate RLUIPA.

RLUIPA, enacted in 2000, prohibits religious discrimination in land-use and zoning decisions. Since 2001, the Civil Rights Division has reviewed more than 110 cases involving RLUIPA and has opened 22 full investigations. These have included investigations of unequal treatment of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist houses of worship and religious schools. 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.

Seizing Churches’ Land Through Zoning Plan Can Violate RLUIPA, Brief Argues

The Civil Rights Division submitted a friend-of-the-court brief to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit arguing that a church that faces having its land seized by a town in New York to make way for a park has a claim under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The brief argued that the federal district court erred when it held that RLUIPA, the law passed in 2000 to protect houses of worship from abuses of local land-use laws, could never bar a town from using its eminent domain powers to seize land for public use. The brief argues that the Town of Brighton, New York’s use of eminent domain to seize Faith Temple Church’s land pursuant to the town’s comprehensive zoning plan may indeed be barred by RLUIPA. Faith Temple Church purchased a 66-acre parcel of land in Brighton to build a larger church after it had outgrown its current building. However, the town’s Comprehensive Plan recommended that this parcel be used to expand an adjacent park. As a result, in April 2004, the town began condemnation proceedings to take the land through its eminent domain powers.

The church filed suit under RLUIPA in July 2004, claiming violation of a provision of the law that prohibits government from causing substantial burdens on religious practice through the imposition or implementation of land use regulations unless it is in furtherance of a compelling government interest and the imposition is carefully tailored to avoid unnecessary intrusions on religious exercise. RLUIPA defines “land use regulations” as “a zoning or landmarking law, or the application of such a law, that limits or restricts a claimant’s use or development of land.” The trial court ruled that eminent domain proceedings are not “zoning or landmarking law” and therefore rejected the church’s lawsuit.

The Civil Rights Division’s appeals brief argues that the trial court made a mistake in focusing only on the question of whether eminent domain should be considered to be a form of zoning or landmarking law. Rather, the brief argues, in this case the burden imposed by the town was a burden imposed by its implementation of its Comprehensive Plan. Since the Comprehensive Plan is undeniably a type of zoning law, and eminent domain was the way that the town implemented this master zoning plan, the question is not simply one of whether eminent domain law is zoning law in the abstract. Rather, the proper question is whether, in this case, the burden on the church came from the implementation or imposition of the comprehensive plan. As the brief states, “the district court reached the wrong conclusion because it asked the wrong question.” The brief asks the court to reverse the decision and send the case back for further proceedings.

Georgia Church Project Approved; Civil Rights Division Closes Investigation into 3-Acre Restriction for Churches

On May 2, the Civil Rights Division closed its investigation of Douglas County, Georgia after it granted a permit for Victory Family Life Church to build a sanctuary on a 2.8 acre parcel that had been the site of churches for more than 20 years, and after a state court judge ruled that a three-acre minimum for churches violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

The Civil Rights Division opened an investigation in January 2005 into whether applying a 3-acre minimum to Victory Family Life Church and other religious institutions but not to other places of assembly violated RLUIPA. The Civil Rights Division also investigated whether the denial of a special exception was due to race-based opposition to the predominantly black church.

While the Civil Rights Division investigation was ongoing, a state court judge ruled that the 3-acre minimum for churches violated RLUIPA. The County Board of Commissioners nonetheless denied a permit for the church on January 3, 2006. The court ordered the board to reconsider, and on March 7, 2006 it voted to issue the use permit. After reviewing the decision and other documentation, the Civil Rights Division closed its investigation.

Religious Bias Crime Update

United States v. Oakley: On April 7, Max L. Oakley pleaded guilty in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to sending a bomb threat to the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the Council on American Islamic Relations from his home in Illinois. The statute under which he pled guilty, 18 U.S.C. § 844(e), makes it a crime to send a threat by telephone or other instrumentality of interstate commerce. Oakley will be sentenced in July.

United States v. Sargent: On April 7, Joseph Lin was sentenced to three months in prison and three months of supervised release for lying about his role in a cross burning incident on the lawn of an Arab-American family in Edmonds, Washington. He was found guilty of 8 U.S.C. § 1623 for plotting with another man, Jaysen Russel, to lie to a grand jury that they did not participate in the cross burning. Russel also pled guilty to a charge of violating 18 U.S.C. § 1623, and is to be sentenced in June. Another man, Collin Sargent, was sentenced in February to ninety days home confinement and three years probation for conspiring to interfere with the family’s housing rights by burning the cross at their home in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 241.

Since the 9/11 attacks, the Department of Justice has investigated more than 700 cases of threats, vandalism, and attacks on Muslims, Arabs, Sikhs, and South Asians, and brought federal prosecutions against 35 defendants, with 32 convictions to date. With the assistance of the Department of Justice in many cases, state and local government have brought more than 150 such prosecutions. More information is available on the websites of the Civil Rights Division’s Initiative to Combat Post-9/11 Discriminatory Backlash, of the Civil Rights Division Criminal Section.

United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

Updated August 6, 2015

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