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Religious Freedom In Focus, Volume 43

DOJ seal United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division
September 2010
Volume 43

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.


Indictment in Ohio Church Arson

On September 17, a federal grand jury indicted an Ohio man under the Church Arson Prevention Act for setting fire to a church in Conneaut, Ohio this past May. Ronald J. Pudder was charged in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio with the arson of the First Azusa Apostolic Faith Church of God, a predominantly African-American church, on May 20.

The Church Arson Prevention Act makes it a federal crime to intentionally damage, destroy, or attempt to destroy religious property. Pudder was charged under a subsection of the law covering attacks on religious property based on the race, color or ethnic characteristics of individuals associated with that property. He was also charged with willfully and knowingly using fire to commit a felony.

The charges carry a penalty of up to 20 years for the destruction of religious property, and a mandatory minimum 10 years for the arson. Pudder also faces a fine of up to $500,000.

"The freedom to practice one’s faith in peace has been a fundamental right from the time of our nation's founding," said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, on the day of the indictment. “Those who use threats and violence to prevent others from exercising this right will be brought to justice.”

An indictment is only is only a charge and is not evidence of guilt. A defendant is presumed innocent unless proven guilty.

Justice Department Files RLUIPA Discrimination Lawsuit Against California City

The Justice Department filed suit on September 13 against the city of Walnut, California alleging that it violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), by denying a Buddhist group a permit to build a worship center. The suit, filed in the United States District Court for the Central District of California, alleges that the city discriminated against the Chung Tai Zen Center based on religion, treated the center less favorably than nonreligious places of assembly in the city, and imposed a substantial burden on the Center’s religious exercise without justification when it denied it a conditional use permit in January 2008.

The lawsuit alleges that that until it denied the Zen Center’s permit application, the city had not rejected any application for a conditional use permit to build, expand or operate a house of worship since at least 1980. The complaint also alleges that the city treated the Zen Center differently than similarly situated religious and non-religious facilities. For example, the complaint alleges that in August 2008, the city approved a conditional use permit for a Catholic church that, when completed, will be larger than the Zen Center’s proposed facility. The complaint also alleges that between 1998 and 2003, the city built a civic center complex two blocks from the Zen Center’s proposed location.

"Religious freedom is among our most cherished rights, and our nation's laws prohibit cities and towns from discriminating based on religion when they make zoning decisions related to houses of worship," said Thomas Perez, Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Division, upon the filing of the suit. "No faith should be singled out for inferior treatment when it seeks to build a house of worship in compliance with local zoning laws."

The government’s complaint seeks a court order declaring that the actions of the city with respect to the Zen Center violated RLUIPA and an injunction to prohibit the city from discriminating in the future.

RLUIPA, enacted in 2000, contains a number of different provisions protecting places of worship and other religious assemblies and institutions from discrimination and undue interference with religious exercise in zoning and land use decisions. See the article about the tenth anniversary of RLUIPA in this issue of Religious Freedom in Focus for detailed information about the law and links to documents and resources.

Consent Decree Reached in Religious Discrimination Suit Against Restaurant

The Justice Department filed a consent decree on August 12, resolving its lawsuit against Lucky Joy restaurant in Flushing, N.Y. over its refusal to serve Falun Gong practitioners. In the consent decree, the owner, Lucky Joy Restaurant Inc., and its president, Xiao Rong Wu, admitted that the restaurant’s staff had ejected patrons who wore Falun Gong t-shirts in violation of Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Title II of the Civil Rights of 1964 prohibits discrimination because of race, color, religion, or national origin in certain places of public accommodation, such as hotels, restaurants, and places of entertainment. The Department of Justice can bring a lawsuit under Title II when there is reason to believe that a person has engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination in violation of Title II.

An investigation conducted jointly by the Housing and Civil Enforcement Section and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York revealed that Lucky Joy servers ejected ten patrons, including an eight-year-old girl, on three separate occasions during 2008 because members of their parties wore shirts displaying the tenets of the Falun Gong spiritual movement. Falun Gong is a spiritual movement that originated in China and has been banned by the Chinese government since 1999.

“It’s disgraceful that a person would be refused service in a restaurant for doing nothing more than exercising their right to wear clothing with a religious message,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division on the day the consent decree was filed. “The Justice Department will continue to vigorously protect the rights of persons of all faiths to be free from discrimination in Flushing and across the country.”

Loretta E. Lynch, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, stated that “People of all religious faiths have the right to be free from discrimination when they enter a restaurant to order a meal. This Office will work tirelessly to ensure that restaurant service is not denied to anyone in this district on the basis of their religion.”

Under the terms of the consent decree, the defendants are enjoined from discriminating against any patron based on religion, religious expression, religious dress or association with Falun Gong. Additionally, the restaurant’s staff will attend training regarding the non-discrimination requirements of Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the restaurant will adopt non-discrimination policies and procedures which will be posted publicly (in English and Chinese), and will finance independent testing designed to ensure that Lucky Joy no longer discriminates.

The Civil Rights Division’s Housing and Civil Enforcement Section enforces Title II. More information about other statutes protecting religious freedom and religious equality may be found at the Division’s Combating Religious Discrimination and Protection Religious Freedom page.

Justice Department Marks Tenth Anniversary of RLUIPA, Issues Policy Statement

September 22 marked the tenth anniversary of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). RLUIPA passed both houses of Congress unanimously and was supported by a broad coalition of religiously and ideologically diverse groups. The law addresses religious discrimination and government infringement of religious liberty in two areas: local land-use laws, such as zoning and landmarking ordinances, and the religious exercise of persons confined to institutions. In its first ten years, it has helped protect the religious liberty of thousands of individuals, places of worship, religious schools, and faith-based social service providers from a wide range of religious traditions.

The Department of Justice marked the tenth anniversary by:

  • Issuing a report describing the reasons Congress enacted RLUIPA, detailing the successes of RLUIPA enforcement in the first ten years, and discussing issues likely to be addressed in the future. Key facts in the report include:
    • The Department has opened 51 RLUIPA land-use investigations, filed seven lawsuits, filed ten amicus-briefs, and intervened in 71 lawsuits to defend RLUIPA’s constitutionality.
    • Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist land-use cases made up a disproportionate number of the department’s RLUIPA investigations–13 times their representation in the population.
    • Half of the department’s land-use investigations involving Christians have involved racial or ethnic minorities.
    • Of the 18 land-use matters involving Muslims reviewed by the Department of Justice, eight have been opened since May of this year.
  • Issuing a policy statement on RLUIPA, including questions and answers, to provide technical assistance on the law to individuals, religious assemblies and institutions, and local government officials.
  • Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez giving opening remarks at a RLUIPA event on Capitol Hill sponsored by the American Constitution Society.

More information about the RLUIPA Tenth Anniversary may be found in the Justice Blog article Ensuring the Religious Freedom of All.

United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

Updated May 30, 2023