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 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:
Attorney General Announces New DOJ Initiative: The First Freedom Project
On February 20, in a speech in Nashville, Tennessee, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced a new initiative to increase enforcement and awareness of laws protecting religious freedom, The First Freedom Project.
In his speech to the Southern Baptist Convention, Attorney General Gonzales discussed the importance of laws prohibiting religious discrimination, hate crime laws, and other laws protecting religious freedom enforced by the Department of Justice. He released a report detailing the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division’s record in increasing enforcement of laws protecting religious freedom over the past six years. The Department’s efforts have, as the Attorney General states in his introduction to the report, "resulted in a dramatic rise in the number of cases brought to protect the religious rights of all Americans in category after category." "But this," the Attorney General stated, "should be only the beginning. Preserving religious liberty requires an ongoing commitment to protecting this most basic freedom for people of all faiths." Through The First Freedom Project, the Attorney General noted in his speech, "the Department will build on our extensive record of achievement in this area and commit to even greater enforcement of civil rights for all Americans."
In addition to a commitment to increased enforcement, The First Freedom Project creates a Department-wide Religious Liberty Task Force to ensure that laws protecting religious freedom are vigorously enforced. The First Freedom Project also incorporates a number of measures to increase public awareness of laws protecting religious freedom and how to report cases to the Department. Attorney General Gonzales announced a series of regional training seminars that will educate religious, community, and civil rights leaders, attorneys, government officials, and others interested in religious freedom about the laws enforced by the Department of Justice. The first seminars will be held in Kansas City, Missouri on March 29, Tampa, Florida on April 25, and Seattle, Washington on May 10. Attorney General Gonzales also announced the launch of a new website, www.FirstFreedom.gov, which provides information about the initiative and seminars, and provides educational materials that can be ordered or downloaded.
For more information, or to register for a seminar, please write to FirstFreedom@USDOJ.gov.
California School District Modifies Policies to Permit Excused Absences for Religious Holidays
The Civil Rights Division on February 14 closed its investigation of the Bakersfield City School District after the District agreed to alter its policies to ensure that students who miss school for religious holidays are given excused absences.
The Division’s Educational Opportunities Section opened its investigation in August 2006, after receiving a complaint from a parent that the school district gave her daughters unexcused absences when they missed school to attend an Ash Wednesday service. The district also informed the parent that one of her daughters was truant because it was her third unexcused absence. The Division opened its investigation under Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which permits the Attorney General to bring suit in response to a complaint that a child in elementary or secondary public school is being “deprived by a school board of the equal protection of the laws." The Division requested that the school district respond to the allegations of the complaint as well as describe its attendance policies and provide examples of permissible excused absences.
In response to requests from the complainant’s private counsel and the Civil Rights Division’s investigation, the school district agreed to convert the students’ absences to excused absences. Then, on December 11, 2006, the District informed the United States that it had revised its administrative regulations to treat religious holidays as excused absences.
“Students who miss school for religious reasons should not be treated differently from students who miss school for other legitimate reasons," Assistant Attorney General Wan J. Kim remarked. “We are pleased that the School District has recognized this and now has policies in place to ensure equal treatment."
Ninth Circuit Certifies Boy Scouts Case to California Supreme Court, But Petition for En Banc Rehearing is Pending
On December 18, a panel of the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion certifying questions to the California Supreme Court in Barnes-Wallace v. Boy Scouts of America, a case alleging that leases of parkland to the Boy Scouts constitute impermissible aid to religion in violation of the U.S. and California constitutions. However, on January 3, the Boy Scouts filed a petition for rehearing and en banc review. The Ninth Circuit ordered a response and asked the California Supreme Court to delay its answer in light of possible en banc review of the certification.
As reported in Volume 16 and Volume 9 of Religious Freedom in Focus, the United States submitted a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that the City of San Diego’s lease of land to the Boy Scouts to operate a campground and an aquatic center did not violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. In 2006, several San Diego residents sued the City and the Boy Scouts, challenging leases under which the Scouts received use of two parcels of parkland in exchange for a commitment to spend at least $1.7 million and open the facilities to other groups serving youth. The lease was similar to more than one hundred other leases in which the City gave low or no cost leases to nonprofit groups in exchange for the groups providing various improvements and public benefits.
The district court found that the city’s lease of public land to the Boy Scouts violated the federal Establishment Clause and California’s No Preference and No Aid Clauses based on the “inherently religious" nature of the Boy Scouts.
In its December 18 opinion, the Ninth Circuit did not address the federal constitutional issues. In a two-to-one decision, the court stated it did not need to determine the federal Establishment Clause questions if the case could be resolved solely on state constitution grounds. The court issued three certified questions to the California Supreme Court which address the No Preference Clause and the No Aid Clause of the California Constitution. The dissenting judge held that the case should be dismissed because the plaintiffs, not suffering any personal harm, did not have standing to bring suit.
The petition for rehearing en banc is pending.
United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division