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Religious Freedom In Focus, Volume 22

DOJ seal United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

April 2007
Volume 24

Religious Freedom in Focus is a periodic email update about the Civil Rights Division's religious liberty and religious discrimination cases. On February 20, 2007, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales announced a new initiative, the First Freedom Project, to highlight the Department of Justice's work protecting religious freedom. 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 and 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.


Oregon White Supremacist Sentenced to 11 Years in Synagogue Attack

On April 3, Jacob Laskey was sentenced to more than 11 years in federal prison for his role in an attack on Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, Oregon. Laskey pleaded guilty to conspiring with four other men to throw rocks etched with swastikas through the stained glass windows of the temple while 80 members were worshiping inside.

Laskey pleaded guilty to charges that included depriving individuals of their civil rights, intentionally damaging religious property, and being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition. Laskey also pleaded guilty to solicitation to murder witnesses, soliciting a bomb threat against the federal courthouse in Eugene, and two counts of obstruction of justice. Laskey, a self-avowed white supremacist, admitted that he sought to commit acts of violence and destruction against Jews, African-Americans, and members of other ethnic and racial groups, when such opportunities arose. All of Laskey’s co-defendants previously entered guilty pleas.

Indianapolis Must Give Equal Treatment to Churches in Commercial District, Civil Rights Division Argues

On April 4, the Civil Rights Division filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that Indianapolis likely violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) by refusing to permit religious assemblies in a commercial district without a zoning variance while allowing clubs, auditoriums, assembly halls, community centers, and other secular assemblies as-of-right in the same district. In the brief filed with the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Digrugilliers v. Indianapolis, the Division argued that a federal trial court erred in finding churches were not “operationally similar” to the other uses permitted in the commercial district. The court thus erred, the brief argued, in denying a preliminary injunction to the church on these grounds.

Since July 2005, the Baptist Church of the Westside has leased property in a commercial zone which permits clubs, assembly halls, community centers, and other similar uses. The church uses the building for worship services for 30 to 50 people, administrative functions, and Bible studies. In February 2006, the city told the church it was conducting activities which were not permitted in the zone absent a variance from the city. The church filed suit, claiming that the city had violated Section 2(b)(1) of RLUIPA, which provides that the government may not “impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that treats a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution.”

The trial court rejected the 2(b)(1) unequal treatment claim on the grounds that churches were not similar to the other assemblies, for two reasons. First, the court argued, churches are permitted in certain other zones of the city as of right, and churches in such zones are automatically allowed to have accessory uses such as parsonages and schools, and thus are treated very favorably in the overall zoning scheme. Second, the court reasoned that Indiana law restricts how close establishments selling liquor and pornography can be to a church, and thus a church in a commercial district could affect nearby businesses in ways that secular assemblies could not.

The United States’ brief argues that both of these grounds were in error, for essentially the same reason. Both grounds involve not an evaluation of the characteristics of the Baptist Church of the Westside and how it wishes to worship and use its property, but rather involve attributes the city and state have decided to ascribe to churches as a category. While some churches have or wish to have schools and parsonages, and therefore might look favorably on this zoning scheme, this church simply wishes to have an assembly in the commercial district and be treated as well as secular assemblies like clubs, lodges, and assembly halls. Similarly, some churches may like the law that prevents liquor and pornography from being sold nearby. But this church simply wants, as is its right under RLUIPA, to be treated the same as clubs, lodges, and other secular assemblies in the commercial district. As the United States brief argues: “However well-meaning the State and City might have been in enacting these laws does not alter the conclusion that what they have actually done is treat the Church less favorably than nonreligious assemblies in violation of RLUIPA.” The brief thus asks the Seventh Circuit to reverse the trial court and hold that the church has shown that it is likely to succeed on its claim.

Seventh Circuit Dismisses Challenge to Boy Scout Jamboree at Fort A.P. Hill

On April 4, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit dismissed a constitutional challenge to the United States allowing the Boy Scouts to hold their Jamboree at Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia and providing logistical support and activities at the Jamboree. In Winkler v. Gates, a federal trial court in Chicago held in 2005 that allowing the Boy Scouts to use Fort A.P. Hill and providing logistical support and activities at the Jamboree violated the First Amendment’s bar on government establishment of religion.

Five Illinois residents sued the Secretary of Defense and others, claiming the Boy Scouts is a religious organization, and therefore the military’s support of the Jamboree violates the Establishment Clause. Pursuant to statute, the United States permits the Boy Scouts to hold the Jamboree at Fort A.P. Hill every four years, and the military provides support such as constructing temporary bathrooms and tent cities. The military also sponsors a number of events at the Jamboree, including band performances, fly-overs, and displays of military equipment.

In its decision on April 4, the Seventh Circuit held that the case must be dismissed because the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the suit.

As most recently reported in Volume 22 of Religious Freedom in Focus, the Civil Rights Division filed a friend-of-the-court brief in a similar challenge to the Boy Scouts’ use of public property in San Diego. In Barnes-Wallace v. Boy Scouts of America, several San Diego residents claimed that San Diego’s lease of parkland to the Boy Scouts to operate a campground and an aquatic center violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. As in Winkler, a federal trial court ruled that because of the inclusion of duty to God in the Boy Scout oath and related religious elements, the leases violated the Establishment Clause. The Boy Scouts appealed, and the United States filed a brief arguing that the Boy Scouts was not a religious organization under the Establishment Clause and that the leases did not violate the Constitution. A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit did not reach the federal constitutional issues but certified questions of state law involved in the case to the California Supreme Court. A dissenting judge argued that the entire case should be dismissed because the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue. The Boy Scouts moved for rehearing by the en banc court. That motion is currently pending.

Tampa Seminar Draws Diverse Audience

On April 25, the Department of Justice held its second seminar on Federal Laws Protecting Religious Freedom at the U.S. Attorney’s office in Tampa, Florida. This seminar series is part of the Attorney General’s First Freedom Project, which highlights the Department’s work enforcing laws against religious discrimination, criminal laws against interference with religious exercise and attacks on religious institutions and individuals, and other laws protecting religious freedom.

The seminar featured a welcome by Robert A. Mosakowski, chief of the Tampa Division of the United States Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida. Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination Eric Treene and Steven Rosenbaum, Chief of the Civil Rights Division’s Housing and Civil Enforcement Section, made presentations on civil laws protecting religious freedom, including laws against discrimination in education, employment, housing, public facilities, and public accommodations, as well as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA). Mark Kappelhoff, Chief of the Civil Rights Division’s Criminal Section, discussed federal laws criminalizing threats and violence against houses of worship and individuals based on religion, and Sara Oates from the FBI Tampa Field Office discussed how the FBI investigates these types of crimes and how to file complaints.

The seminar was attended by attorneys, community and religious leaders, and local government officials from Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. The next seminar will be held May 10 in Seattle, Washington. More information about the seminar series is available at

United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

Updated August 6, 2015