Religious Freedom In Focus, Volume 31

DOJ seal United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

January/February 2008
Volume 31

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, the Department of Justice launched a new initiative, The First Freedom Project, to highlight its 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.


Three Men Charged in Tennessee Mosque Burning

On February 13, a federal grand jury in Nashville returned an indictment against three men for their roles in burning the Islamic Center of Columbia in Columbia, Tennessee four days earlier. The indictment charges them with unlawful possession of a destructive device, a felony punishable by up to ten years in prison.

According to a criminal complaint filed in federal court the day before the indictment, Eric Ian Baker, Michael Corey Golden, and Jonathan Edward Stone of Columbia, constructed incendiary devices using gasoline, rags, and empty beer bottles. On February 9, the men went to the Islamic Center and spray-painted swastikas on the walls along with the phrases “White Power” and “We run the world.” They then broke into the building and ignited the devices, causing a fire that severely damaged the mosque. The complaint alleges that they had been planning the attack for approximately one week. An indictment and a federal criminal complaint are merely accusations, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless proven guilty.
The case remains under investigation by the ATF, the FBI, and the Columbia Police Department. FBI Special Agent in Charge, James M. Cavenaugh, upon the filing of charges, said “Today begins a court process to hold the individuals accountable for an act which destroyed religious property and shocked a community. We are fortunate that despite the loss of property and a sense of sadness, that no one was killed or injured from the incident.”
Since 9/11, the Justice Department has prosecuted 38 defendants for federal bias crimes against Muslims, Arabs, Sikhs, and South Asians, with 35 convictions to date. The Department has also assisted in more than 150 state and local prosecutions involving bias crimes against these groups. More information is available on the website of the Civil Rights Division’s Initiative to Combat Post-9/11 Discriminatory Backlash.

Boston Man Pleads Guilty to Lying to FBI in Jewish Bias Attack Case

On January 16, Kevin W. Cann Jr. pleaded guilty in federal court in Boston, Massachusetts to making a false statement to a federal agent in connection with an FBI investigation of a bias motivated threat and assault on a Jewish teenager. Cann pleaded guilty to one count of violating 18 U.S.C. §1001 for lying to an FBI agent in March 2005, when he denied sending a threatening e-mail to a Jewish teenager and later striking the teen.

At the guilty plea hearing, Cann acknowledged that on April 21, 2004 he sent a threatening message via AOL Instant Messenger. In the message, Cann called the Jewish teenager a “stupid jewbag,” and stated, among other things, “you killed jesus and i’m going to kill you.” Cann admitted to striking the teenager two days after sending the message and then lying about it when questioned by the FBI.

Cann will be sentenced on May 21, 2008. He faces a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment. The case, United States v. Cann, was investigated by the Boston Division of the FBI, and was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Ted Merritt of the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Deputy Chief Bobbi Bernstein of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

In the last two fiscal years, the Division convicted record numbers of defendants for civil rights violations. In fiscal year 2007, the Division convicted 189 defendants, the highest number of defendants ever in the history of the Division, surpassing the prior year’s record number of 181 defendants. More information about Civil Rights prosecutions is available on the Civil Rights Division’s Criminal Section homepage.

Justice Department Settles Muslim Corrections Officer Religious Liberty Case

On January 18, a federal judge in Manhattan approved a settlement in a Department of Justice suit that alleged that the New York Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) had failed to accommodate the religious practices of correctional officers as required by law.

The suit, filed on March 15, 2007, arose out of a case in which a Muslim correctional officer at a halfway house had for years been permitted to wear a prayer cap, or kufi, while on duty, but in 2005 had been told that he must remove the cap while at work. The suit alleged that there was no policy in place for DOCS to review requests for reasonable accommodation of religious practices as required by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Under the settlement approved by the court, DOCS must keep in place a process under which employees are given an individualized review and determination when seeking religious accommodations to policies regarding officers’ uniform and grooming requirements. Denial of a requested reasonable accommodation may only be made after a detailed consideration of the impact of the accommodation on the performance of job duties. The Muslim corrections worker whose case prompted the suit has been permitted to wear a dark blue or black kufi with his uniform while working at the halfway house since shortly after the Justice Department notified DOCS that it would file suit.

“This settlement underscores the Justice Department’s commitment to protecting the religious liberties guaranteed by federal law for all Americans,” Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Grace Chung Becker said when the court approved the settlement. Similarly, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Michael J. Garcia remarked that “federal law prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of religion, and requires reasonable accommodation of employees’ religious practices. We are pleased that DOCS has agreed to give fair consideration to its uniformed officers’ requests for such accommodations.”

The Civil Rights Division’s Employment Litigation Section handles Title VII cases for the Civil Rights Division. In addition to discrimination cases, the Employment Litigation Section also brings cases enforcing Title VII’s religious accommodation provision, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e (j), which provides that employers must reasonably accommodate employees’ religious observances and practices “unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate to an employee's or prospective employee's religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer's business.” This provision covers areas such as Sabbath accommodation, grooming and religious garb, and conscientious objection to job duties. Recent cases have included a case against the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority for failure to accommodate Sabbath-observant bus drivers, a case against the State of Ohio over its requirement that employees support the employees’ union despite religious objections, and a pending case against the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority regarding its failure to accommodate Muslim and Sikh bus and subway drivers who wear religious headcoverings.

Consent Decree Entered Requiring Equal Treatment of Religious Institutions

On February 25, an Illinois federal court approved a consent decree in the Department of Justice’s suit against the City of Waukegan under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The consent decree requires the city to change its zoning code to ensure that religious assemblies are not treated less favorably than similar nonreligious assemblies.

The United States’ RLUIPA lawsuit, filed on February 19 concurrently with the consent decree, alleged that the City has imposed and implemented zoning code provisions that are more restrictive for houses of worship than for nonreligious assemblies and institutions such as clubs, lodges, meeting halls, and theaters, in violation of RLUIPA. The case was brought to the Justice Department’s attention as the result of a private lawsuit filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois against the City by a local religious institution.

RLUIPA section 2(b)(1), under which the Justice Department suit was brought, provides that: “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.”

Under the terms of the consent decree, the City must amend its zoning code within sixty days so that the code does not treat religious assemblies and institutions differently than comparable nonreligious assemblies or institutions. The consent decree also requires the City to provide training for personnel on RLUIPA’s requirements and post notices about this consent decree at various locations.

“Houses of worship should not face barriers to building or operating that are imposed by zoning codes merely because they are religious institutions,” said Grace Chung Becker, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “The Justice Department will continue to vigorously enforce civil rights laws on behalf of all religious groups.”

This case was handled by the Civil Rights Division’s Housing and Civil Enforcement Section, which enforces RLUIPA in cases involving state and local government entities. RLUIPA prohibits a state or local government from imposing or implementing discriminatory land use regulations.

Since 2001, the Civil Rights Division has reviewed more than 140 cases involving RLUIPA and has opened 36 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 five RLUIPA lawsuits. More information about RLUIPA can be found on the Civil Rights Division's Housing and Civil Enforcement Section homepage or at

Religious Freedom Seminar to be Held in Atlanta

The next regional seminar on Federal Enforcement of Laws Protecting Religious Freedom will be held in Atlanta, Georgia on April 1, 2008. The seminar series is part of the Department of Justice’s initiative to increase enforcement of laws protecting religious freedom, The First Freedom Project. Prior seminars have been held in Kansas City, Tampa, Seattle, Brooklyn, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.

The seminar is designed for religious, community, and civil rights leaders, attorneys, and local government officials and covers the full range of religious liberty laws enforced by the Civil Rights Division: laws barring discrimination based on religion in employment, public education, housing, credit, and access to public facilities and public accommodations; laws barring zoning authorities from discriminating against houses of worship and religious schools; laws protecting the religious rights of institutionalized persons; and criminal statutes such as the Church Arson Prevention Act, which makes it a federal crime to attack persons or institutions based on their religion or otherwise interfere with religious exercise through threats or violence.

The seminar features opening remarks by U.S. Attorney David Nahmias, presentations by three senior Civil Rights Division officials, and question and answer sessions. The seminar will run from 1 to 4 p.m. and will be held at Georgia State University in the Student University Center Speaker’s Auditorium. A flyer with more information is available here. Attendance is free, but registration is required. Continuing Legal Education may be available. To register, please send your name, phone number, and organization, if applicable, to

United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

Updated August 6, 2015

Was this page helpful?

Was this page helpful?
Yes No