Religious Freedom In Focus, Volume 3

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United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division


April 2004
Volume 3

Religious Freedom in Focus is a monthly email update about the Civil Rights Division's religious liberty and religious discrimination cases. Assistant Attorney General R. Alexander Acosta 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.


Civil Rights Division Intervenes in Suit to Protect Muslim Student's Right to Wear Headscarf to Public School

The Civil Rights Division has intervened in a pending lawsuit against the Muskogee, Oklahoma Public School District, seeking to protect the right of a sixth-grade Muslim girl to wear a headscarf to school. The Division's motion to intervene, filed on March 30 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma, was granted on April 12.

The United States' suit alleges that the student was twice suspended from the Benjamin Franklin Science Academy for refusing to take off her headscarf, or hijab, after being told that it violated the school's dress code. That code prohibits students from wearing hats, caps, bandanas, or jacket hoods inside school buildings. The student and her parents had filed suit in October 2003. The case is entitled Hearn et al. v. Muskogee Public School District 020.

The United States' complaint alleges that the school district violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution by applying its dress code in an inconsistent and discriminatory manner. The complaint asks the court to prohibit the school district from discriminating against the student, and to have the dress code policy revised to ensure that discrimination on the basis of religion does not continue.

"No student should be forced to choose between following her faith and enjoying the benefits of a public education," said Assistant Attorney General R. Alexander Acosta. "We certainly respect local school systems' authority to set dress standards, and otherwise regulate their students, but such rules cannot come at the cost of constitutional liberties. Religious discrimination has no place in American schools."

The case has attracted national and international attention. Articles about the case have appeared in CNN, MSNBC, The International Herald Tribune, and the BBC, among others. The Defendants moved for summary judgment on March 30. The case likely will be heard within the next three months.

Constitutionality of Church-Arson Prevention Act Upheld

On April 5, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held in Corum v. United States that the federal "Church Arson Prevention Act" did not violate the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, and upheld the conviction of Gary Corum for making a series of bomb threats to synagogues in the Minneapolis area.

Corum was convicted of three counts of violating the statute known as the Church Arson Prevention Act, 18 U.S.C. 247, which prohibits damaging or destroying religious property, or interfering with religious exercise through force or the threat of force, in a manner that affects interstate commerce. He was also convicted of three counts of 18 U.S.C. 844(e), which prohibits using a telephone to make a threat of violence. The Civil Rights Division initiated the prosecution after Corum left bomb and arson threats on the voice mail of three synagogues in the Twin Cities area in July 2001. In those messages, he claimed to represent the White Aryan People's Party and ended his messages with "Heil Hitler."

On appeal, Corum argued that the Church Arson Prevention Act violates the Constitution's Establishment Clause. He claimed that by singling out religious institutions for special protection, the federal government was unconstitutionally establishing religion. The Court rejected this argument, accepting the Civil Rights Division's argument in its appeals brief, and holding that the purpose and effect of the Act is not to advance religion but rather "to curb violence and threats of violence that adversely affect an aspect of interstate commerce Congress has found to be particularly vulnerable to violent interference." The Court also held that Corum's threats met the interstate commerce requirement of the Act, inasmuch as synagogues are engaged in a wide range of religious, social service, and educational activities affecting commerce.

"The Court has sent a strong and clear message that Congress may protect the constitutional rights of Americans to freely exercise their chosen faiths in peace without violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment," said R. Alexander Acosta, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division.

Corum, who has been free on bond pending appeal, will serve a term of 16 months' imprisonment. The case was prosecuted by the Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Minnesota.

Civil Rights Division Anticipates Decisions in Two Good News Club Cases

The Civil Rights Division participated as amicus in two important cases involving the equal treatment of religious speech in schools currently pending in the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Third and Fourth Circuits, Child Evangelism Fellowship v. Stafford Township School District (New Jersey) and Child Evangelism Fellowship v. Montgomery County Public Schools (Maryland).

In June 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Good News Club v. Milford, that a town could not bar a Christian youth organization from holding after-school meetings at a public school featuring Christian stories, games, and activities, since the school's community-use policy permitted secular groups to make similar use of the space. The Supreme Court held that this unconstitutionally discriminated against religious viewpoints, and rejected the school's claim that the discrimination was required to avoid violating the First Amendment's prohibition on government establishment of religion.

One of the key factors the Supreme Court relied on for its holding that allowing equal access would not violate the Establishment Clause was that children could only attend Good News Clubs with their parents' permission. As a result, the Court reasoned, there could be no government pressure on young children to attend the meetings.

Despite this holding, some schools have decided that while they must let religion-oriented children's organizations like Good News Clubs meet, they will not let them pass out permission slips and other literature about the programs. Montgomery County, Maryland, for example, permits groups serving to children to provide flyers and permission slips to the school for inclusion in students' "take-home" folders. Groups that have been permitted to distribute literature in this manner have included the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington, sports leagues, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, the YMCA, and many others. Yet the Good News Club was denied permission to distribute its permission slips and flyers in this manner. The Good News Club responded by filing suit through its parent organization, Child Evangelism Fellowship. A federal trial court denied its motion for a preliminary injunction, and the group appealed.

The Civil Rights Division submitted a brief in support of the Good News Club, and participated in oral arguments in Richmond on September 24, 2003. The brief argued that contrary to the school's contention that it had to discriminate against the Good News Club's permission slips and flyers to avoid establishing State religion, "permitting access on an equal basis would preserve the neutrality toward religion required by the Constitution." A decision is pending.

The United States also submitted a brief in and argued a virtually identical case on September 11, 2003, before the Third Circuit in Philadelphia. That case involved the Good News Club being barred from distributing permission slips and related literature in Stafford Township, New Jersey. As in the Montgomery County case, various other youth organizations had been permitted to distribute their materials, but the Good News Club was excluded solely because of the religious nature of its activities. The trial court ruled in favor of the Good News Club, and the school board appealed. Friend-of-the-court briefs in support of the Good News Club were filed by the National Association of Evangelicals, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, and the American Center for Law and Justice. A brief in support of Stafford Township, on the other hand, was filed by People for the American Way, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Anti-Defamation League and the New Jersey Education Association. Decision in this case is pending as well. Watch future issues of Religious Freedom in Focus for updates.

United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

Updated August 6, 2015

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