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Religious Freedom In Focus, Volume 37

DOJ seal United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division
January/February 2009
Volume 37

Religious Freedom in Focus is a periodic email update about the Civil Rights Division's religious liberty and religious discrimination 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);

the Civil Rights Division is working to protect the right of all people to practice their faiths freely and without discrimination.

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 Settles Religious Discrimination Suit Against Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority

The Department of Justice announced on February 3 that it had reached a settlement with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) in its lawsuit alleging that WMATA failed to accommodate the religious practices of employees. The settlement agreement was approved and entered by the Court on February 5. The case, brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, involved a woman who sought a religious accommodation to WMATA’s uniform policy allowing her to wear a skirt. Relief was also obtained for two other women who requested but were denied an accommodation to allow them to wear headscarves for religious reasons.

This case initially came to the Civil Rights Division’s attention after Gloria Jones, who is a member of the Pentecostal Apostolic Church, applied for a bus driver position and requested that she be permitted to wear a skirt instead of pants in accordance with her religious beliefs. After requesting an accommodation, she was denied the job, and filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC attempted conciliation, then referred the case to the Civil Rights Division. The Civil Rights Division filed a Title VII pattern-or-practice suit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, seeking relief for Ms. Jones and all other similarly situated employees and prospective employees.

Under the terms of the settlement agreement, WMATA agreed to pay damages to Ms. Jones, and to permit the other two women to wear headscarves in a manner that does not interfere with their peripheral vision or cover the WMATA identification patch on their uniforms. The settlement also requires WMATA to implement a formal religious accommodation policy for bus operators and similarly situated employees, to provide training to WMATA supervisors, and report all religious accommodation requests and decisions to the Department of Justice for two years.

On the day that the settlement was announced, Loretta King, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, stated: “This settlement agreement sends a clear message that the Department of Justice will not tolerate religious discrimination by employers.” She added: “I am pleased that WMATA has agreed to end its discriminatory practice and put into place mechanisms to protect the religious practices of its current and future employees.”

The case was handled by the Civil Rights Division’s Employment Litigation Section. More information about employment cases brought by the Division is available on the ELS website.

DOJ Settles Suit Alleging Zoning Discrimination By Nashville Against Faith-Based Substance Abuse Program

On January 29, the Department of Justice reached a consent decree in its civil rights suit alleging that the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee unlawfully denied zoning approval to a Christian substance abuse program. The suit alleged that the Metropolitan Government discriminated against Teen Challenge and its clients based on disability in violation of the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and imposed a substantial burden on their religious exercise in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), when it barred the group from building a residential treatment facility.

Teen Challenge International is a Christian nonprofit organization based in Nashville that provides faith-based substance abuse programs for young people. In 2006, Teen Challenge purchased property to build a residential treatment facility in a neighborhood of Davidson County where rehabilitative services were permitted in the zoning code as of right. According to the United States’ suit, there was community opposition to the location of Teen Challenge in the neighborhood, and the Metropolitan Government first delayed granting Teen Challenge a building permit, then amended its zoning code in order to keep Teen Challenge out. The United States filed suit in September 2008, alleging disability discrimination in violation of the FHA and violation of RLUIPA’s bar on government action that imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise without a compelling government interest.

Under the terms of the settlement, which was approved by the court on January 30, the Metropolitan Government agreed to rescind the zoning amendment that had barred Teen Challenge and adopted a reasonable accommodation policy for persons with disabilities. The settlement also requires designation of an FHA and RLUIPA compliance officer, training for employees on the requirements of these two civil rights statutes, and monetary payments to Teen Challenge and the United States.

Loretta King, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, said: “Cases like this show how the FHA and RLUIPA work together to ensure that persons with disabilities are not discriminated against and that religious groups seeking to aid those persons can operate without unjustifiable burdens."

The case was handled by the Civil Rights Division's Housing and Civil Enforcement Section.

Indictments in Massachusetts Election-Night Church Arson

On January 27, a federal grand jury in Massachusetts indicted three men on federal civil rights conspiracy charges alleging that they burned a predominantly black church to the ground in Springfield on election night in response to the election of Barack Obama as President.

The indictment charges the three men, Benjamin Haskell, Michael Jacques, and Thomas Gleason with one count of Conspiracy Against Civil Rights under 18 U.S.C. § 241. The indictment alleges that early in the morning of November 5, the three men conspired to burn the Macedonia Church of God in Christ in response to the election of President Obama. According to the indictment, the three men expressed anger at the election, and discussed burning the church because the church’s congregants and bishop are African-American. The indictment alleges that the three men then obtained gasoline and poured it on the interior and exterior of the church, a new building that was almost complete, and ignited it, destroying the entire structure.

If convicted, the men face up to 10 years in prison each. An indictment is only an allegation of guilt, and defendants are presumed innocent until prove guilty. The case is being prosecuted by attorneys from the Civil Rights Division and the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts, and was investigated by the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Hampton County District Attorney’s Office, and the Springfield Police Department.

United States Says Court Erred in Dismissing Mezuzah Fair Housing Suit

At the request of the en banc United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, the United States filed a brief on January 16 arguing that the court should reinstate a suit over a condominium board that barred a Jewish family from installing a mezuzah. In the suit, Bloch v. Frischholz, the family sued the condominium board for religious discrimination under the Fair Housing Act after the board repeatedly removed a mezuzah from the family’s front door. A federal trial court in Illinois dismissed the suit and a three-judge panel of the appeals court affirmed the trial court in July 2008. The Court of Appeals ordered the case to be reheard en banc, that is, before all of the judges of the appeals court.

A mezuzah is a small case containing a piece of parchment with a religious text on it that observant Jews affix to the inside of the doorposts of their homes. The Blochs, a Jewish family, had a mezuzah on the door frame of their condominium in Chicago for several years. Beginning in 2004, the condominium board began to interpret a rule barring “mats, boots, shoes, carts, or objects of any sort . . . outside Unit entrance door” to bar mezuzot. This rule had been in existence since 2001, but had never been applied to mezuzot. Relying on the rule, the Board had maintenance staff remove the Bloch’s mezuzah on several occasions and threatened them with a fine if they replaced it.

In 2005 the Blochs filed suit under the Fair Housing Act challenging the board’s actions to prevent them from keeping a mezuzah on their door frame. A federal trial court dismissed the suit, holding that the Fair Housing Act only applies to discrimination in the sale or rental of property, and does not apply to discrimination that occurs after the property has been acquired, such as discrimination by a condominium board in how a property is managed. The trial court also ruled that the Blochs had not shown intentional discrimination.

A panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed, 2-1, holding that the Fair Housing Act “does not address discrimination after ownership has changed hands.” The majority further held that since the condominium board’s rule against objects outside of owners’ units was neutral toward religion, that is, that it applied to secular as well as religious objects, even if the Fair Housing Act reached condominium board rules, there would be no violation here. The en banc, or entire, Court of Appeals ordered rehearing of the case, and requested the United States to file a brief setting forth its position on the issues involved in the case.

In its brief, the United States argues that the trial court and the panel majority erred in holding that the FHA did not apply to post-acquisition discrimination. The United States brief states that the text of the Fair Housing Act supports the conclusion that the Act applies to discrimination that occurs after sale or rental. The Fair Housing Act, the brief notes, includes a bar on discrimination in the provision of “services or facilities” in connection with the sale or rental of residential property. This provision “is fairly read to encompass activities and benefits that are ongoing in nature, such as use of common areas, maintenance, and rules enforcement.” Similarly, the United States contends that language in the Fair Housing Act barring discrimination in the “terms, conditions, or privileges of sale or rental” also applies post-acquisition. Department of Housing and Urban Development regulations also interpret the Fair Housing Act as barring post-acquisition discrimination, the brief notes.

Since post-acquisition religious discrimination is covered by the Fair Housing Act, the brief argues, the Court also must address whether removal of the mezuzah constituted a violation of the Act. While the Fair Housing Act does not contain a requirement of affirmative religious accommodation, as does Title VII, the brief argues that the Blochs presented evidence suggesting that the condominium board applied its rules to bar the Blochs’ mezuzah based on anti-Jewish animus. Discriminating against condominium owners in rules enforcement because of their religion would constitute religious discrimination in violation of the Fair Housing Act, the brief argues. Such evidence must be evaluated by a jury, and therefore dismissal by the court was inappropriate, the brief concludes.

The case is scheduled for argument on May 13.

United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

Updated June 7, 2023