Religious Freedom In Focus, Volume 32

DOJ seal United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

March/April 2008
Volume 32

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.


Civil Rights Charges Brought in Tennessee Mosque Arson Case

On March 26, a federal grand jury in Nashville handed down a five-count indictment charging three men with civil rights and other offenses for their roles in the arson of the Islamic Center in Columbia, Tennessee in February. Eric Ian Baker, Jonathan Edward Stone, and Michael Corey Golden were charged with conspiracy to violate civil rights, destroying a house of worship, possession of a destructive device, use of fire to destroy a building, and use of fire to commit a felony in connection with the arson of the mosque on February 9.

The indictment alleges that between February 2 and February 9 the three men, all of whom are said to be members of a white supremacist group called the “The Aryan Alliance,” conspired to burn the mosque. The indictment further alleges that during the early morning hours of February 9, 2008, Baker drove Golden and Stone to a convenience store in Columbia where they made Molotov cocktails. According to the indictment, Golden and Stone later hurled the Molotov cocktails into the Islamic Center, setting the building on fire, while Baker spray painted phrases, which included “White Power,” onto the exterior of the mosque.

The two civil rights charges in the indictment are violation of 18 U.S.C. 247, known as the Church Arson Prevention Act, and the civil rights conspiracy statute, 18 U.S.C. 241.

The case was investigated by the Columbia, Tennessee, Police Department, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Hal McDonough and Civil Rights Division Trial Attorney Jonathan Skrmetti. An indictment is only an allegation, and a defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.

Since 9/11, the Justice Department has prosecuted 41 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.

School Board Unlawfully Discriminated Against Church’s Speech, Brief Argues

The Civil Rights Division filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit on April 1, supporting a Christian congregation’s right to rent school facilities in New York City on an equal basis with other civic and community groups. In this long-running litigation, the New York City School Board has sought to bar the congregation from renting facilities for Sunday worship despite a policy making school facilities available for rental to a wide range of community groups. This is the fourth time that the case, Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education of the City of New York, has been before the Second Circuit.

The school board makes school facilities available after hours to groups for “social, civic and recreational meetings and entertainments, and other uses pertaining to the welfare of the community.” Nearly 10,000 permits are issued per year under this policy allowing groups to use school facilities. Groups renting facilities have included sports leagues, Legionnaire Greys, Boy and Girl Scouts, community associations, a college for holding English instruction, and numerous other diverse groups.

Bronx Household of Faith is a small, independent church that has sought to rent school facilities for Sunday worship. The school board, however, has long refused to rent facilities to groups that intend to engage in worship activities. After an initial round of litigation in the 1990's failed, Bronx Household filed suit against the New York City School Board a second time in 2002, claiming that it was entitled to equal treatment based on the Supreme Court’s 2001 decision in Good News Club v. Milford. In Good News Club, the Supreme Court held that a policy nearly identical to New York City’s could not be used to bar a group that teaches morals and character to children through Bible study, games, prayer, and songs from using school facilities after hours.

In June 2002, a federal trial court in New York ruled that, in light of the Good News Club decision, Bronx Household was likely to win the case and granted a temporary order allowing it to rent school facilities as the case progressed. On appeal, the United States filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Bronx Household’s position, and the appeals court affirmed. Since then, as the suit has proceeded, Bronx Household and 22 other congregations have used school facilities for Sunday services.

The school board then modified its policy, but the revised policy continued to exclude worship activities. On November 17, 2005, the federal district court permanently barred the school from discriminating against the church. The City appealed to the Second Circuit. The United States filed an amicus brief on July 16, 2006, arguing that worship falls within the permitted category of social, civic, or other activities “pertaining to the welfare of the community” under which thousands of private organizations have been permitted to rent facilities after hours. The brief stated: "The Board engaged in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination by denying Bronx Household the same opportunity to promote its activities that other groups enjoy. Restrictions on private speech must be viewpoint neutral. In all relevant respects, Bronx Household's meetings did not differ from other groups' meetings that the Board permitted to use the school. Rather, the Board denied Bronx Household use of the school solely because of the religious perspective of its activities."

On July 2, 2007, the Court of Appeals issued an opinion, but did not decide the case. One judge would have affirmed, and another would have reversed. The third judge held that the case was not ripe for decision, because it was not clear that the revised community-use policy now at issue had in fact been adopted by the school board. The case thus was sent back to the lower court for further proceedings. The lower court ruled that the policy had indeed been adopted by the School Board, and the parties immediately appealed to the Second Circuit again.

In the brief filed on April 1, the United States reiterates its prior argument that “excluding religious activity because it is religious is presumptively unlawful.” The brief repeats its objection to the school board’s position that worship is an entirely different mode of speech that falls outside of traditional First Amendment analysis. The United States brief points out that the Supreme Court rejected such an argument more than 25 years ago in Widmar v. Vincent (1981), where the Court held that courts could not, under the First Amendment, distinguish categorically between religious speech generally and religious worship. The Widmar Court found that there was no principled basis to determine when “singing hymns, reading scripture, and teaching biblical principles, . . . cease to be ‘singing, teaching and reading’ – all apparently forms of speech despite their religious subject matter – and become unprotected worship.”

DOJ Closes RLUIPA Investigation After Illinois Village Allows Mosque Expansion

On April 4, 2008, the Civil Rights Division notified the Village of Berkeley, Illinois that it was closing its investigation into whether the Village had violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) by refusing to allow the Albanian Islamic Center’s 13,000-square foot expansion plan. The Division closed its investigation after the Village approved resolutions on March 18 permitting the mosque, which had operated on the site for more than 25 years, to go forward with its expansion.

In 1982, the Albanian Islamic Center purchased a 4.5 acre parcel of land housing a former school building on St. Charles Road, in Berkeley, Illinois and began holding religious services there. The Center has operated continuously at that location since then. The Center is the only Islamic institution in the Village of Berkeley and the only mosque in Illinois that aims specifically to serve Albanian immigrants.

In 2001, the land on which the mosque sits was rezoned as a business district, which permits only tax-generating businesses and residences built on top of ground-floor businesses. Existing uses were grandfathered, but alterations to existing uses were prohibited unless an exception was given. Between January 2004 and May 2007, the Center made four applications to construct an approximately 13,000-square-foot addition to the Center, including a minaret. The Center proposed to expand to accommodate its growing membership and to give the Center a more mosque-like appearance. The Center’s religious services were often crowded with congregants spilling out into the halls. The Village denied all four of these applications.

On August 3, 2007, the United States notified the Village that it had opened an investigation into whether the Village had violated RLUIPA by denying the Center’s applications for permission to expand. On March 18, the Village approved the Center’s proposed expansion and the Division closed its investigation in response.

RLUIPA, enacted in 2000, prohibits zoning and landmarking laws that substantially burden the religious exercise of places of worship and other religious institutions unless implementation of such laws is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest. RLUIPA also prohibits zoning and landmarking laws that discriminate against places of worship and other religious institutions or that unreasonably limit them in or exclude them from a jurisdiction. RLUIPA authorizes the Department of Justice to bring suits to enforce its provisions. Since 2001, the Division has reviewed 156 RLUIPA matters and has opened thirty-eight full investigations. Seventeen of these full investigations have been resolved favorably prior to filing a lawsuit. The Division has also filed five RLUIPA lawsuits, three of which have been resolved by consent decree, and two of which are pending. More information about RLUIPA can be found on the Civil Rights Division's Housing and Civil Enforcement Section homepage or at

Final First Freedom Project Regional Seminar for 2008 Slated for Boston

The final regional seminar for 2008 on Federal Enforcement of Laws Protecting Religious Freedom will be held in Boston, Massachusetts on Wednesday, June 18 at Suffolk University Law School. The seminar series has been part of the Department of Justice’s initiative to increase enforcement and awareness of laws protecting religious freedom, The First Freedom Project. Prior seminars have been held in Kansas City, Tampa, Seattle, Brooklyn, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta.

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 will feature opening remarks by U.S. Attorney Michael J. Sullivan, presentations by three senior Civil Rights Division officials, and question and answer sessions. The seminar will run from 1 to 4 p.m at Suffolk University Law School at 120 Tremont Street in downtown Boston. Attendance is free, but space is limited and registration is required. Continuing Legal Education may be available. For more information, please contact

United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

Updated August 6, 2015

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