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Religious Freedom In Focus, Volume 35

DOJ seal United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

September/October 2008
Volume 35

Religious Freedom in Focus is a periodic email update about the Civil Rights Division's religious liberty and religious discrimination cases. In 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 Division Files Religious Discrimination Suit Against Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority

The Civil Rights Division filed a religious discrimination suit against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority on September 29, alleging that WMATA has failed to provide employees with accommodations to its uniform policy as required by law. The suit, brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, alleges that WMATA has a practice of denying all requests for religious accommodations, whether or not reasonable accommodations are available. The suit, filed in federal district court in Washington, D.C., also alleges that WMATA discriminated against a Christian bus driver applicant who sought an accommodation that would permit her to wear a skirt rather than pants as required by her faith.

“Employees should not have to sacrifice their religious practices for their livelihoods,” said Grace Chung Becker, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “While public employers have the authority to require uniforms, they cannot refuse to accommodate an employee’s religious practice when reasonable accommodation is possible.”

Title VII bars against employment discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, or national origin. Its religious discrimination provisions specifically require that employers accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs, 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.”

WMATA requires certain employees, such as bus drivers, to wear uniforms. The suit alleges that WMATA has no procedure in place for determining if an employee who has a religious conflict with the uniform requirement can be reasonably accommodated under Title VII. WMATA’s practice, the suit alleges, has been simply to deny all requests for religious accommodation.

In 2005, Gloria Jones applied for a position as a bus driver with WMATA. She is a member of the Apostolic Pentecostal church, and her faith forbids her from wearing pants. Since the WMATA bus driver’s uniform includes pants, she asked for a religious accommodation to allow her to wear a skirt instead of pants. She was denied the job, and filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC attempted mediation, then referred the case to the Department of Justice.

The Department of Justice’s suit seeks relief for Ms. Jones, and relief for all similarly situated employees and prospective employees. It asks the court, among other things, to require the WMATA to “adopt a policy designed to reasonably accommodate the religious observances, practices, and/or beliefs of WMATA’s employees and prospective employees who need a religious accommodation.”

Since 2001, the Employment Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division has filed five suits alleging that a government agency had engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination based on religion. More information about these cases is available on the Employment Litigation Section website and at

Civil Rights Division Files Brief Supporting Catholic Prisoner’s Right to Vegetarian Diet

On September 11, the Civil Rights Division filed an appeals brief arguing that an Illinois penitentiary violated a Catholic prisoner’s federal religious freedom rights by denying him a vegetarian diet he sought in order to do penance. The Division’s friend-of-the-court brief, filed with the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Nelson v. Miller, argues that the Tamms Correctional Center denied inmate Brian Nelson’s rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) by denying him a vegetarian meal that the prison provides to inmates of various other faiths.

Brian Nelson is a Roman Catholic prisoner incarcerated at the Tamms Correctional Center in Illinois. Tamms provides vegan meals to prisoners, such as Muslims and Buddhists, whose religious beliefs forbid them from eating the standard diet. Nelson sought a diet free from meat on Fridays and during Lent as an act of penance. He stated that he was willing to take the vegan meal year-round if that was necessary for administrative convenience. His request was denied on the ground that this dietary restriction was not required by the Roman Catholic faith. During Lent, Nelson abstained from all meat in the regular diet. He lost a substantial amount of weight and was eventually hospitalized. He testified that during this period he felt hungry, cold, depressed, and anxious.

After grievances with the prison were denied, Nelson brought suit in federal district court, alleging violation of RLUIPA and other claims. Section 3 of RLUIPA provides that “No government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person . . . [when RLUIPA’s jurisdictional requirements are met] unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” A federal trial court, after a bench trial before a magistrate judge, ruled against Nelson on all claims, and Nelson appealed.

The United States’ brief argues that the trial court erred in analyzing Nelson’s RLUIPA claim that denying him a vegetarian diet substantially burdened his religious exercise. The brief contends that Congress intended “substantial burden” under RLUIPA to be interpreted in accordance with the Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause. Under Free Exercise principles, a “government imposes a substantial burden on a person’s beliefs when it puts substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and violate his beliefs.” The brief contends that the trial court erred in failing to give weight to the uncontradicted testimony that Nelson was hungry, cold, anxious and depressed due to lack of adequate nutrition during Lent, and that he lost a substantial amount of weight and was hospitalized as a result. These facts, the brief contends, support a claim that the defendants imposed a substantial burden on his religious exercise.

The brief concludes that “the record shows that Nelson would be required to forego adequate nutrition for the entire forty days of Lent in order to comply with his sincerely held religious beliefs,” and that the court improperly rejected his RLUIPA claim. The brief asks the appeals court to remand the case for application of the proper legal standard and criteria. The United States brief did not address other claims by the defendants for which the court found that he had not exhausted administrative remedies.

More information about the Civil Rights Division’s enforcement efforts under Section 3 of RLUIPA and other efforts to protect the religious rights of persons in institutions may be found at the Special Litigation Section website or the First Freedom Project homepage.

Guilty Pleas Entered for Interference with Massachusetts Muslim Families’ Housing Rights

Two Massachusetts men have pleaded guilty to conspiring to interfere with the housing rights of two Muslim families in Revere, Massachusetts by repeatedly vandalizing vehicles in front of their homes. Christopher D. Giaquinto, who is 21 but was 17 at the time of the vandalism, pleaded guilty to the charge on October 14 in United States District Court in Boston. Another man, Adam J. Bonito, who likewise is now 21 but was 17 when the vandalism occurred, pleaded guilty on October 22. A third individual, who is a juvenile, pleaded guilty earlier in October.

The charging document, called an information, alleged that the three individuals vandalized a van belonging to an Arab Muslim family in September 2004, and then vandalized a second van belonging to another Muslim family living in the same duplex on four subsequent occasions between September 2004 and March 2005. The information alleges that the vandalism was intended to interfere with the housing rights of the families based on their race, religion or national origin.

Giaquinto and Bonito each face up to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine. The case was investigated by the FBI, and is being prosecuted by attorneys from the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts and the Civil Rights Division.

Since 9/11, the Justice Department has prosecuted 43 defendants for federal bias crimes against Muslims, Arabs, Sikhs, and South Asians, with 37 convictions to date. The Department has also assisted in numerous 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.

North Carolina Man Pleads Guilty to Sending for Email Threats To Islamic and Latino Organizations

On October 1, a North Carolina man pleaded guilty to federal civil rights charges for sending bomb threats via email to an Islamic organization in Washington, D.C., and sending a threatening email to a Latino organization, also in Washington. Cristopher Szaz of Raleigh pleaded guilty in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina to sending two email messages on June 8, 2007 threatening to bomb the offices of the Council for American Islamic Relations, and sending an email on July 27, 2007 to the headquarters of the National Council of La Raza threatening to kill its employees.

Szaz pleaded guilty to two counts of interference with federally protected employment rights, after which the court sentenced him to 45 days imprisonment and one year of supervised release. The case was investigated by the Washington, D.C. field office of the FBI, and prosecuted by attorneys from the United States Attorney’s office for the Eastern District of North Carolina and the Civil Rights Division.

Keynote Address Explores Relationship of Religious Liberty and Religious Diversity in America

On September 23, Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination Eric Treene gave the keynote address at the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee of Michigan’s annual “Judges’ Night,” which recognizes the contribution of the judiciary to protecting rights, and gives awards to members of the bench for distinguished service.

The speech explored the interrelationship of religious diversity and religious liberty in the United States with religious liberty. Americans are at the same time among the most religious people on earth, both in terms of belief in God and in participation in formal worship activities. Yet at the same time the United States is one of the most, if not the most, religiously diverse nations on earth. The speech asked how we can be a nation of such diversity and intensity of religious beliefs, and yet at the same time view ourselves as one people. The answer, the speech posited, is in our shared commitment to the principle of religious freedom.

United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

Updated August 6, 2015