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Religious Freedom In Focus, Volume 18

DOJ seal United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division
August/September 2006
Volume 19

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.



Guilty Pleas, Sentencing in Synagogue Attack Case

On September 4, Gerald Anthony Poundstone was sentenced to 15 months incarceration and 3 years of supervised release for his role in an attack on a synagogue in Eugene, Oregon. In 2002, Poundstone and other members of the white supremacists group Volksfront threw rocks etched with Nazi swastikas through windows at the Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, Oregon during an evening worship service. Poundstone pleaded guilty to conspiracy to deprive individuals of their civil rights and intentionally damaging religious property.

On August 15, brothers Jacob and Gabriel Laskey pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to violate civil rights and damaging religious property for their role in the attack. Jacob Laskey also pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, solicitation to commit a crime of violence, and being a felon in possession of a firearm. Jesse Baker pleaded guilty to participating in the conspiracy in December 2005. All three are awaiting sentencing. Charges against a fifth defendant are pending.

Ninth Circuit Rules Sikh Congregation’s Rights Violated by Zoning Action; Upholds Constitutionality of RLUIPA

On August 1, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in Guru Nanak Sikh Society v. County of Sutter that a Sikh congregation unfairly had been denied a permit to build a gurdwara in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The court also ruled that RLUIPA is a constitutional exercise of Congress’s power to enforce civil rights.

Sutter County does not permit houses of worship anywhere in the county as-of-right. Houses of worship may locate in the county only if they obtain a conditional use permit and, even then, only in six out of the county’s twenty-two zoning districts. Four of those six districts are residential, and the other two are agricultural. The Guru Nanak Sikh Society purchased land in a residential district to build a house of worship. The county’s planning department reviewed the plan and recommended approval. However, after a public meeting at which neighbors complained about potential noise and traffic, the County Planning Commission denied the permit.

Having been rebuffed in the residential district, the congregation purchased a thirty-acre plot in one of the two agricultural zones in which houses of worship are permitted by conditional use permit. This permit also was denied. The Sikh congregation then filed suit under RLUIPA in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California. The district court found for the congregation, holding that the county’s actions imposed a substantial burden on its religious exercise without a compelling justification. The court rejected the county’s argument that RLUIPA violated the Constitution. The county appealed.

On appeal, the United States intervened to protect the constitutionality of RLUIPA, and also filed a brief as friend-of-the-court arguing that the district court properly found that the county violated the congregation’s rights. The United States’ brief argued that in light of the congregation’s demonstrated good-faith efforts to site its gurdwara in a location and in a manner that satisfies the county’s requirements, it should not have to “continue to purchase property after property in the [six] residential and agricultural zones in the speculative hope that at some point it will obtain approval.” Under these circumstances, the brief maintained, the denial of a conditional permit violated RLUIPA. The brief also argued that RLUIPA was well within Congress’s power under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment to enforce the protections of the Constitution.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed. The court held that “because the County’s actions have to a significantly great extent lessened the prospect of Guru Nanak being able to construct a temple in the future, the County has imposed a substantial burden on Guru Nanak’s religious exercise.” The court also found that RLUIPA was within Congress’s authority to enforce the protections of the Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause.

RLUIPA, enacted in 2000, prohibits religious discrimination and unjustifiable burdens on religious exercise in land-use and zoning decisions. Since 2001, the Civil Rights Division has reviewed more than 120 cases involving RLUIPA and has opened 26 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 out of court through voluntary modification of potentially discriminatory zoning regulations. The Division also has filed three RLUIPA lawsuits. More information about RLUIPA can be found on the Civil Rights Division's Housing and Civil Enforcement Section homepage.

Consent Decree Reached in Ohio Religious Accommodation Suit

On September 5, a federal judge approved a consent decree resolving religious discrimination lawsuits against the State of Ohio, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, the Ohio Department of Administrative Services, and the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, AFSCME, Local 11, AFL-CIO. The lawsuits, brought by the Justice Department and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleged that the state defendants and the union violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by failing to respect the rights of employees with religious objections to supporting the union.

The union and the state defendants permit employees who are members of churches that historically have opposed unionization to pay an amount equivalent to their dues and agency fees to charity. However, they refuse to allow employees who do not belong to such churches, but nonetheless have sincere religious objections to supporting the union, to make a charitable donation instead of paying dues or fees. The suit was prompted by the case of a Presbyterian state employee who objected to associating with or supporting the union on religious grounds because of its support for abortion and same-sex marriage.

The Justice Department's lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against the state defendants, and a Title VII suit by the EEOC against the union, were consolidated by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio. The consent decree approved by the court requires religious accommodations of state employees with sincere religious objections to associating with or financially supporting unions, whether or not they are members and adherents of a particular religion.

“The law protects the religious observances, practices, and beliefs of all Americans,” said Wan J. Kim, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “I applaud the Ohio state officials for working with the Department to resolve this case.”

DOJ Files RLUIPA Brief in Jewish Day School Case

On August 11, the United States filed a brief with the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, arguing that a New York village violated a Jewish school’s rights when it denied it permission to expand. The brief, filed as an intervenor and a friend-of-the-court in Westchester Day School v. Village of Mamaroneck, contends that the federal district court correctly held that the village had violated the rights of the school under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

In October 2001, Westchester Day School applied for a permit which would allow it to construct a new classroom, connect two existing buildings, and renovate two additional buildings. The school has been in operation since 1948 and over the years the classrooms have become overcrowded and inadequate. The school sought expansion because the poor state of its facilities was undercutting its mission as a dual-curricular school offering religious and general education. In applying for its permit, the school submitted supplemental reports detailing parking requirements, traffic flows, fire code compliance, waterfront development compliance, and environmental impacts. After review, the Zoning Board of Appeals determined that no negative impact on the community would result from the expansion. Shortly thereafter, the board reversed course under pressure from the community, deciding that the expansion would have a negative impact. The school subsequently filed suit in U.S. District Court, and the United States intervened to defend the constitutionality of RLUIPA.

On September 5, 2003, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of the school and rejected the village’s constitutional challenges to RLUIPA. However, on September 27, 2004, the Second Circuit vacated and remanded the district court’s decision, holding that material issues of fact precluded summary judgment. After a bench trial, the district court once again upheld the constitutionality of RLUIPA and ruled for the school. The court found that the school’s religious mission was substantially burdened by the lack of adequate facilities. The village appealed to the Second Circuit.

In its brief, the United States argues that the district court properly upheld the constitutionality of RLUIPA. The brief argues that in enacting RLUIPA, “Congress identified a broad pattern of unconstitutional conduct in land-use decisions against religious organizations, and enacted congruent and proportional legislation in response to it.”

On the merits, the brief argues that the district court correctly held that the village substantially burdened the school’s religious exercise in violation of RLUIPA by denying the permit. The expansion is necessary for the continued viability of the school, the brief argues. Moreover, the school “has endured years of negotiation, expense, effort, and delay, and the district court correctly determined that ‘any purported willingness on the part of the [village] to consider fairly, much less approve, another application actually filling [the school’s] needs is, at the least, highly suspect.’”

United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

Updated May 31, 2023