Religious Freedom In Focus, Volume 40

DOJ seal United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

Fall 2009
Volume 40

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.


Third Guilty Plea In Tennessee Mosque Arson

A Tennessee man, Eric Ian Baker, pleaded guilty on September 22 to federal civil rights charges for his role in burning the Islamic Center of Columbia to the ground with two other men in February 2008. Baker pleaded guilty in federal court in Nashville to destruction of religious property in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 247 and use of fire in the commission of a felony. Baker, along with two other men, spray painted swastikas and “white power” on the mosque and ignited Molotov cocktails, starting a fire that destroyed the mosque.

Baker admitted during the plea hearing that he, along with Michael Corey Golden and Jonathan Edward Stone, broke into the mosque, vandalized it, and burned it deliberately because it was a mosque. Golden and Stone pleaded guilty in November 2008, and are scheduled to be sentenced on November 23. Baker will be sentenced on December 14. Each of the three men faces up to 30 years in prison.

DOJ Closes Inquiry After Georgia Courts Change Religious Headcoverings Policy

On July 29, the Civil Rights Division closed its inquiry into the Georgia courts’ treatment of visitors wearing religious headcoverings, after the Judicial Council of Georgia unanimously adopted a new policy permitting headcoverings worn for religious or medical reasons. The Civil Rights Division had opened a compliance review of the Georgia state court system, which is a recipient of DOJ funding, after receiving complaints that Muslim several women had been barred from entering courts wearing headscarves.

The Civil Rights Division’s Coordination and Review Section opened the compliance review on January 30, 2009, after receiving several complaints that Muslim women were barred from wearing headscarves in courtrooms, including a complaint that a woman was found to be in contempt of court for failing to remove her headscarf and ordered to serve ten days in jail. In response, the Division opened a review to determine if the Georgia Courts were complying with the nondiscrimination provisions of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968. As a condition of courts and other state entities receiving federal funding under the Safe Streets Act, they agree not to discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, or religion in their programs and activities. The Coordination and Review Section of the Civil Rights Divisions is one of the Department of Justice components that enforces these provisions.

On July 22, the Judicial Council of Georgia unanimously adopted a new policy for headcoverings in all of the courts of the state. The policy provides:

Head coverings are prohibited from the courtroom except in cases where the covering is worn for medical or religious reasons. To the extent security requires a search of a person wearing a head covering for medical or religious reasons, the individual has the option of having the inspection performed by a same-sex officer in a private area. The individual is allowed to put his or her own head covering back on after the inspection is complete.

Chief Justice Carol Hunstein of the Supreme Court of Georgia, who chairs the Judicial Council, issued a press release on August 21 announcing the closing of the DOJ compliance review, stating: “I congratulate the judges of this state and am grateful to the Justice Department that we have resolved this matter. But this should remind all of us who work in the judicial system that we must remain ever-vigilant to never deny anyone justice or access to the courts.”

City’s Old Town District Cannot Exclude Religious Organizations, U.S. Appeals Brief Argues

The United States, in a brief filed August 7 in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, argued that the City of Yuma, Arizona violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), by excluding religious organizations from its “Old Town” district. The United States’ friend-of-the-court brief argued that the city’s exclusion of religious organizations from the district, while permitting various secular membership organizations, violated the equal terms provision of RLUIPA.

The city of Yuma, Arizona has an “Old Town District” designed “to establish and support a mixture of commercial, cultural, governmental, and residential uses that will help to ensure a lively pedestrian-oriented district.” The district permits, as of right, secular organizations such as social service agencies, fraternal organizations (including a Masonic Temple), trade associations, labor unions, and other membership organizations, though it specifies that religious organizations are not permitted as of right. Religious organizations are required instead to apply for a conditional use permit.

A church in Yuma, Centro Familiar Cristiano Buenas Nuevas, was outgrowing its leased facilities, and purchased a building on South Main Street, in the Old Town District. The church applied for a conditional use permit with the City’s Planning and Zoning Commission, which the commission denied on the grounds that the church did not fit the City’s vision of the Old Town District as a cultural, retail, recreational and entertainment hub with high pedestrian traffic. In particular, the Commission stated that due to a state law barring issuance of new liquor licenses within 300 feet of a church, the City’s goals for Main Street in the Old Town District could be frustrated by Centro Familiar locating there.

Centro Familiar filed suit under RLUIPA in May 2008 in federal court, including a claim the city’s actions violated Section 2(b)(1) of RLUIPA, also known as the equal terms provision. The equal terms provision 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.”

After a bench trial, the court ruled in favor of the city. With regard to the equal terms claim, the court ruled that treating the church differently was justified for two reasons. First, under Arizona law, establishments that serve liquor cannot be located within 300 feet of houses of worship, and thus the presence of the church could impact neighboring uses in a way that secular assemblies and organizations would not. Second, the court noted that churches and other religious organizations were, in the courts view, more likely to have accessory uses such as social services, reading rooms, and educational institutions than other organizations.

Centro Familiar appealed, and the United States joined the case as amicus curiae, or friend-of-the-court. The United States’ brief argues that the trial court erred in ruling against the church’s equal terms claim, and held that there was no basis for singling out religious organizations as the only type of membership organization excluded from the zone. First, the brief contends that the Arizona law barring issuance of liquor licenses to establishments near churches cannot serve as a valid basis for denying the protection of RLUIPA. Such a law, ostensibly enacted to protect churches that do not want bars and liquor stores nearby, cannot be used to thwart the federal rights of a church that does not wish to be protected. The brief cites a nearly identical case from the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, Digrugilliers v. Indianapolis, which ruled that RLUIPA prevented using a liquor-near-a-church law to deny a church equal treatment. The court in that case held that “government cannot, by granting churches special privileges,” such as the right “to be free from offensive land uses in its vicinity, furnish the premise for excluding churches from otherwise suitable districts.” The same is true in this case, the brief argues. However, the brief notes that “if the Church wishes to operate in the Old Town District on the same terms as a secular membership organization, it cannot be heard to complain that liquor stores and bars are in its immediate vicinity.”

The United States’ brief also argues that the court was wrong to conclude that religious organizations may be treated differently because they are more likely to engage in “accessory uses.” The brief notes “if the City wants to regulate accessory uses, it can do so directly through a neutral permitting process that applies evenhandedly to both religious and secular membership organizations.” The brief also points out that the city’s accessory-use argument against the church is in tension with its claim that it wants to keep out houses of worship to create a district with greater foot traffic. The brief adds that Centro Familiar church wishes to offer English classes, music and dance lessons, and computer classes, among others, all things which would tend to increase pedestrian activity. The brief concludes that “the Church is thus arguably more consistent with the City’s goals for the Old Town District than are secular membership organizations, such as trade associations and labor unions, that may not generate comparable foot traffic yet are allowed to operate in the district as of right.”

Arguments in the case have not been scheduled. More information about RLUIPA may be found on the Housing and Civil Enforcement Section’s RLUIPA page.

United States Settles Homeowners’ Insurance Discrimination Case

On September 22, the United States reached a settlement resolving allegations that GuideOne Mutual Insurance Company and two insurance agents discriminated on the basis of religion in violation of the Fair Housing Act. The United States alleged in the case, filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Kentucky, that the defendants had advertised and marketed special discounts and benefits only to “churchgoers” and “persons of faith” for homeowners’ insurance, and asked for applicants’ religious denomination on application forms.

The Fair Housing Act has various provisions barring discrimination in and relating to the sale or rental of housing. Among these provisions is a bar on discrimination “in the terms, conditions, or privileges of sale or rental of a dwelling, or in the provision of services or facilities in connection therewith, because of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin.” This encompasses services such as the provision of homeowners’ insurance.

The suit arose from complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development by two individuals and a fair housing organization. HUD issued a charge of discrimination, and referred the case to the Justice Department after one of the complainants elected to have the case heard in federal court. The United States’ suit alleged that GuideOne improperly discriminated based on religion in the provision of homeowners’ insurance.

Under the terms of the settlement, GuideOne agreed to discontinue discriminating on the basis of religion and to train its agents on the Fair Housing Act, and to pay damages to the complainants and a fine.

More information about the Civil Rights Division’s enforcement of the Fair Housing Act may be found at the home page of the Housing and Civil Enforcement Section.

United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

Updated August 6, 2015

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