Religious Freedom In Focus, Volume 44

DOJ seal United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

December 2010
Volume 44

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.


United States Sues School Over Refusal to Accommodate Teacher's Pilgrimage

The United States filed suit against the Berkeley, Illinois School District on December 13, alleging that the school district violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, by failing to reasonably accommodate the religious practices of Safoorah Khan, a Muslim teacher. The government’s complaint alleges that Ms. Khan requested an unpaid leave of absence in December 2008 to perform Hajj, a pilgrimage required by her religion.

Title VII prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin or religion. Title VII’s religious discrimination provisions include a requirement that employers make a reasonable accommodation of employees’ religious observances and practices, unless the employer can demonstrate that granting such accommodation would constitute an undue hardship.

According to the complaint, Berkeley School District denied Ms. Khan’s request because the purpose of her leave was not related to her professional duties nor was it leave for any of the specific purposes set forth in the Professional Negotiations Agreement between the school district and the teachers’ union. The United States alleges that, by denying Ms. Khan’s request for a reasonable accommodation, the school district compelled Ms. Khan to choose between her job and her religious beliefs, and thus forced her discharge.

The United States’ suit seeks an order requiring the Berkeley School District to adopt a policy designed to reasonably accommodate the religious faiths of all employees and prospective employees. In addition, the United States seeks back pay, compensatory damages and reinstatement for Ms. Khan.

“Employees should not have to choose between their religious practice and their livelihood,” said Thomas Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “Federal law prohibits employers from treating employees and applicants less favorably because of their religion, and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for the religious beliefs and practices of their employees.”

The United States’ lawsuit against Berkeley School District is one of many cases that the Department of Justice has brought to vindicate the rights of employees who faced discrimination based on religion in violation of Title VII. For example, in 2009 the Justice Department resolved United States v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, in which the United States sued the transit authority for failing to provide a Pentecostal Christian female employee with a reasonable accommodation to alleviate a conflict between her faith and a portion of the transit authority’s uniform policy. The transit authority provided relief to the complainant and to two Muslim women who also had religious conflicts precluding them from complying with a portion of the uniform policy, and agreed to establish a religious accommodation policy and training program for all employees. Other cases successfully resolved by consent decree have included United States v. Palm Beach County, Florida, in which the United States brought suit over the county’s failure to accommodate a Christian employee’s need to abstain from work on Sundays, United States v. Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority, in which the United States brought suit over the MTA’s failure to accommodate a Jewish bus driver’s Sabbath observance, and United States v. Essex County, discussed below.

These cases are part of the Department of Justice’s ongoing efforts to enforce an employer’s affirmative duty under Title VII to reasonably accommodate the diverse religious observances and practices of their employees. Additional information about these cases, including copies of the consent decrees, is available on the Employment Litigation Section page of the Civil Rights Division’s website.

Court Rejects Neighbors’ Challenge that Mosque is not a Place of Worship

On November 17, 2010, a Tennessee state court ruled that the construction of a mosque in Rutherford County could continue, and denied a preliminary injunction to neighbors who had challenged the project on grounds that included arguing that a mosque should not be considered a place of worship. The Justice Department filed a brief as amicus curiae on October 18, 2010 in the case, Estes, et al. v. Rutherford County, arguing that the county properly treated mosques in the same manner it treated churches and other place of worship as required under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

The case arose after Rutherford County in May 2010 approved the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro’s site plan to construct a new mosque, fellowship hall, and recreational facilities. Neighbors protested the approval, and four county residents filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the approval, and sought a preliminary injunction to halt construction. They contended, among other things, that Islam is a political ideology rather than a religion, and that mosques are political rather than religious in nature and were not entitled to the same zoning treatment as churches.

Section 2(b)(2) of RLUIPA prohibits local governments from discriminating based on religion or religious denomination in the application of zoning laws. RLUIPA also requires places of worship to be treated at least as well as secular assemblies and institutions, bars total or unreasonable exclusion of places of worship from a jurisdiction, and requires that any zoning action that imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise be justified by compelling, narrowly tailored government interests.

The United States’ brief in the Rutherford case argued that “[t]he County . . . acted properly in affording [the mosque] same treatment that it would have given any religious assembly or institution.” The brief stressed that “[F]ailing to treat mosques as a category equally with churches as a category in application of its zoning laws would be a facial violation of Section 2(b)(2) of RLUIPA.”

The brief flatly rejected the plaintiff’s efforts to establish that Islam is not a religion for legal purposes and that a mosque should not be treated as a place of worship. Surveying Supreme Court decisions, legislation enacted by Congress, and presidential proclamations, as well as statements by the founders, the brief concluded that “consistent among all three branches of government, the United States has recognized Islam as a major world religion.” Then, analyzing the meaning of “religious assembly” under RLUIPA, the United States’ briefs concluded that “[t]here is . . . no question that the [proposed Islamic Center] constitutes a religious assembly under RLUIPA.”

After hearing several days of testimony on the issue, and reviewing the United States’ submission, the court denied the preliminary injunction, allowing the construction to proceed.

“A mosque is quite plainly a place of worship, and the county rightly recognized that it had an obligation to treat mosques the same as churches, synagogue, or any other religious assemblies,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, when the brief was filed. “This is not only common sense; it is required by federal law. The Justice Department is committed to protecting rights of Americans of all faiths to build places of worship.”

RLUIPA was signed into law on September 22, 2000. On the tenth anniversary of RLUIPA, the Civil Rights Division issued a Policy Statement on RLUIPA, which includes answers to common questions about the law and the United States’ RLUIPA enforcement program. The Civil Rights Division also issued a 10th Anniversary Report detailing the history and purpose of RLUIPA, and describing many of the cases the United States has brought in the first ten years since its enactment.

United States Files Brief in Long-Running RLUIPA Case in Los Angeles

On November 1, 2010, the United States filed a Statement of Interest in Congregation Etz Chaim v. City of Los Angeles, arguing that city administrative proceedings denying a conditional use permit to an Orthodox Jewish congregation did not preclude the congregation from bringing claims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The Statement of Interest, filed with the United States District Court for the Central District of California, supports the position of the congregation that its claims were entitled to a hearing in federal court.

This case involves the longstanding efforts of a small Jewish congregation to gather for worship in a house in Los Angeles’ Hancock Park neighborhood. The congregation’s efforts to locate in this residential neighborhood predate the enactment of RLUIPA. In fact, the case features prominently in the legislative history of RLUIPA. Etz Chaim’s rabbi, Chaim Baruch Rubin, testified before Congress at a 1998 hearing about his congregation’s troubles in being permitted to worship in the neighborhood. One congressman described the difficulties experienced by the congregation as “one of the most troubling accounts” of religious discrimination heard at the hearing, and remarked, “hopefully help is on the way.” After the enactment of RLUIPA, the congregation filed suit and obtained a settlement with the city in 2001. That settlement was opposed by neighbors, leading to years of litigation and finally the overturning of the settlement in 2007 by a federal appeals court.

The Congregation's latest lawsuit, filed on March 3, 2010, alleges that the city's denial of the congregation’s renewed application for a conditional use permit in 2009 violates RLUIPA by discriminating against the congregation, treating it on less than equal terms with comparable non-religious entities, and substantially burdening its exercise of religion. The city moved for judgment on the pleadings on the ground that the RLUIPA claims were precluded in federal court by the administrative hearings that led to the denial of the permit.

The Justice Department’s brief argues that precluding the RLUIPA claim would contradict the purpose and legislative intent of RLUIPA; that the issues litigated at the administrative and federal levels are not identical; and that the city's proceedings were not sufficiently judicial to constitute a full and fair adjudication. The United States’ brief argues that RLUIPA's "legislative history demonstrates that Congress enacted RLUIPA to serve as a federal statutory solution to religious discrimination and violation of the free exercise of religion by state and local entities, including zoning boards, planning commissions, and their respective agencies of appeal. This congressional purpose would be thwarted if zoning boards are able to insulate actions that would violate RLUIPA by making a ruling purportedly under RLUIPA and then arguing that a claimant is precluded from challenging that ruling.” The United States’ brief concludes that “there should be, at minimum, a strong presumption against finding preclusion, to ensure that Congress's intent to provide an enforcement mechanism for discrimination and violation of the free exercise of religion is not undermined."

More information about RLUIPA can be found on the RLUIPA information page of the Civil Rights Division’s Housing and Civil Enforcement Section.

United States Settles Discrimination Suit Involving Religious Headscarf

On November 19, the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey approved a settlement between the Civil Rights Division and Essex County, New Jersey in a suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 involving the county’s refusal to reasonably accommodate a female corrections officer who wore a religiously-mandated headscarf while on duty. The suit, filed by the United States in July 2009, alleged that Yvette Beshier, who is Muslim, was first suspended by the county, then terminated, for refusing to report to work without her headscarf, or khimar.

The settlement includes a monetary award to Ms. Beshier and adoption of a religious accommodation policy for all employees, as well as training for county employees on religious discrimination and accommodation.

Title VII prohibits discrimination in employment based on race, color, sex, national origin or religion. The religious discrimination provisions include a requirement that employers make a reasonable accommodation of employees’ religious observances and practices, unless the employer can demonstrate that such accommodation would present an undue hardship.

“An individual should not have to choose between keeping a job and practicing their faith when accommodations can be reasonably made,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “We are pleased that Essex County has agreed to give fair consideration to its employees’ requests for reasonable accommodations.”

The Department of Justice has brought a number of Title VII cases involving accommodations of religious clothing, such as United States v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, resolved in 2009, which was brought in response to a complaint by a Pentecostal Christian female employee whose faith prevented her from complying with a portion of her employer’s uniform policy which required employees to wear pants, and United States v. New York Metropolitan Transit Authority, currently being litigated, which involves Muslim and Sikh women and men whose religious observance, practice and/or belief require them to wear religious headcoverings with their MTA uniform. More information about these and other cases is available on the Employment Litigation Section page of the Civil Rights Division’s website.

Massachusetts Man Sentenced for Church Arson

A Massachusetts man was sentenced on November 1, 2010 to nine years in prison for his role in the burning of a Pentecostal Church with a predominantly African-American membership in Springfield, Massachusetts on election night 2008. Benjamin Haskell of Springfield was sentenced in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts for his role in the arson of the Macedonia Church of God in Christ. Haskell previously pleaded guilty to conspiring with others to burn down the church out of anger at the election of Barack Obama as the first African-American president. The church, which was being constructed at the time and was 75 percent complete, was completely destroyed by the fire.

Haskell was prosecuted under the Church Arson Prevention Act, which makes it a crime to intentionally damage, destroy, or attempt to destroy religious property, or use force or threat of force to interfere with religious exercise. Haskell pleaded guilty under a section of the Act making it a crime to engage in such arson or violent interference with religious exercise because of the race, color, or ethnic characteristics of the victim church. At his plea hearing, Haskell admitted that he and co-conspirators, after Barack Obama was declared the winner of the election, went to the church, poured gasoline on the interior and exterior, and lit the fire that destroyed it.

“The freedom to practice the religion that we choose without discrimination or hateful acts is among our nation’s most cherished rights,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division after the sentencing. “As seen here today, the Department will prosecute anyone who violates that right to the fullest extent of the law.”

The Department of Justice has prosecuted a number of arson and other attacks on places of worship in recent years, including the prosecution of three men for the 2008 arson of a mosque in Columbia, Tennessee, the prosecution of a man for spraypainting threatening graffiti and neo-nazi markings on an Alabama synagogue in 2009, and the prosecution of a man for the 2007 arson of Methodist and Presbyterian churches in Burlington, Iowa based on anti-Christian animus.

More information about these and similar prosecutions may be found at the Civil Rights Division Criminal Section’s homepage.

United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

Updated August 6, 2015

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