Religious Freedom in Focus is a periodic email update about the Civil Rights Division's religious liberty and religious discrimination cases. The Division has worked to expand enforcement of these 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 www.FirstFreedom.gov. You may also contact the Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination, Eric W. Treene, at (202) 353-8622.
IN THIS ISSUE:
DOJ Sues New York Corrections Department Over Refusal to Make Religious Accommodations
On March 15, the Department of Justice filed a civil rights lawsuit in a Manhattan federal court against the New York State Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) over its refusal to provide any accommodation to its employee uniform and grooming policies for religious reasons. The complaint, filed by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York and the Civil Rights Division, alleges that DOCS has engaged in a pattern or practice of employment discrimination on the basis of religion in violation of Title VII.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to make reasonable accommodations of the religious practices and observances of their employees. DOCS’s uniform and personal grooming policy, covering 21,000 uniformed employees, does not provide any process for religion-based exceptions. Included in the allegations are that DOCS has forbidden Abdus Samad Haqq, a Muslim correction officer at a halfway house, to continue to wear a Kufi, or skullcap. Mr. Haqq had worn his Kufi for several years, but in 2005 was ordered to stop wearing it due to DOCS’s uniform policy. The lawsuit alleges that DOCS refused to make a reasonable accommodation of Mr. Haqq’s religious practice and seeks an order requiring DOCS to adopt a uniform and grooming policy that reasonably accommodates the religious observances, practices, and beliefs of all DOCS personnel.
“Americans are not required to abandon their religious beliefs when they report for work,” Assistant Attorney General Wan J. Kim said at the time of the filing. “The Justice Department is committed, through the First Freedom Project and vigorous enforcement efforts, to protect the religious liberties guaranteed by federal law.”
The Civil Rights Division's Employment Litigation Section enforces Title VII in cases involving state and local government employers. More information can be found on the Employment Litigation Section Homepage and at www.FirstFreedom.gov.
Assistant Attorney General Kim Argues For Expansive Reading of RLUIPA’s Anti-Discrimination Protections
In an oral argument on March 27 before the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia, Assistant Attorney General Wan J. Kim argued that a federal trial court erred in placing additional hurdles not found in the text of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) on a church seeking to operate in a commercial zone. Assistant Attorney General Kim argued in the appeal in Lighthouse Institute for Evangelism, Inc. v. City of Long Branch that the trial court should not have required the church to show a “substantial burden” on its religious exercise before the church could make out a claim of discrimination under RLUIPA.
After the city denied Lighthouse Institute a zoning permit to use its commercially-zoned property as a church, it filed suit under RLUIPA. One of its claims was under section 2(b)(1) of RLUIPA, which provides: “No government shall 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.” In ruling against the church, the court held that it was not enough that the church show discrimination, but that it also must show that the discrimination imposed a "substantial burden" on its religious exercise. The Civil Rights Division filed a friend-of-the-court brief on June 7, 2006.
Assistant Attorney General Kim argued that the trial court erred by importing the “substantial burden” test, which is contained in a different part of RLUIPA pertaining to different kinds of claims, to discrimination claims under 2(b)(1). Assistant Attorney General Kim contended that the anti-discrimination provisions of RLUIPA – 2(b)(1), which bars discrimination in favor of secular uses and against religious ones, and 2(b)(2), which bars discrimination against particular religions – cannot be read to require the additional step of proving a “substantial burden.” As the United States stated in its brief, “[u]nder this interpretation, a municipality could create a zone in which, for example, Christian churches may build on one-acre lots but Hindu temples must build on five acre lots, unless a Hindu congregation can show that this rule substantially burdens its religious exercise.”
The Court took the case under advisement.
Inaugural First Freedom Project Regional Seminar Held in Kansas City
More than 120 community, religious and civil rights leaders and local government officials from Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Iowa gathered in Kansas City, Missouri on March 29 for the first of a series of First Freedom Project regional seminars. The First Freedom Project is Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ initiative to increase enforcement and awareness of laws protecting religious freedom. The religious freedom seminars are designed to educate local government and civic leaders on the laws against religious discrimination, bias crimes involving religion, and other laws protecting religious freedom, and how to file complaints when rights are violated.
The next seminars will be held in Tampa on April 25 and Seattle on May 10. For more information, please go to www.FirstFreedom.gov and click on “regional seminars.”
DOJ Closes RLUIPA Investigation After Church Obtains Zoning Approval
On March 5, the Civil Rights Division closed its investigation of whether Rockaway Township, New Jersey violated the rights of a church under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The investigation focused on the township’s treatment of Christ Church of New Jersey, which had applied for a conditional use permit to build a sanctuary, offices, classrooms, and related facilities, including a parking deck. While the Division’s investigation was pending, the church and the town reached an agreement that will allow the church to proceed with construction.
Christ Church, a predominantly African-American congregation in the Township of Montclair, had outgrown its facilities. After an extended search for a new location, it contracted to purchase an abandoned manufacturing facility in Rockaway Township and submitted a permit application to the town’s planning board in December 2003. For nearly two years, the planning board held dozens of hearings to consider the proposal. In the meantime, in March 2005, the town passed an amendment to its zoning ordinance prohibiting multi-story parking decks anywhere in the town. In April 2005, the church filed a federal lawsuit against the town.
In October 2006, the planning board approved Christ Church’s proposal, subject to a number of conditions, including a prohibition on Friday and Saturday services. After extended negotiations, the town agreed to modify the conditions. The church’s lawsuit against the town was resolved by a settlement in February 2007.
Since 2001, the Civil Rights Division has reviewed more than 120 cases involving RLUIPA and has opened 30 full investigations. These have included investigations involving Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist houses of worship and religious schools. Many of these have been resolved out of court through voluntary modification of potentially discriminatory zoning regulations. The Division also has filed four RLUIPA lawsuits. More information about RLUIPA can be found on the Civil Rights Division's Housing and Civil Enforcement Section homepage or at www.FirstFreedom.gov.
United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division