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Religious Freedom in Focus, Volume 64 - October/2015

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.


Justice Department Files Suit Over Mosque Denial

On September 30, 2015, the United States filed suit against the City of Des Plaines, Illinois under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), over its denial of rezoning to allow a Muslim congregation to use a vacant office building as a mosque.  The suit, filed in federal court in Chicago, alleges that the city treated the mosque less favorably than it has treated nonreligious assemblies, discriminated against the mosque based on religion, and imposed a substantial burden on the mosque members’ religious exercise without justification.

The American Islamic Center (AIC) is a congregation of Muslims with a Sufi orientation and is largely composed of Bosnian immigrants, many of whom were refugees from the Bosnian conflict in the 1990’s.  The congregation has been renting space from other mosques and holding educational activities and holidays in various locations.  Due to the hardships created by the lack of a permanent place of worship, the congregation in 2011 began searching for a permanent location.  After two years, AIC found an office building in Des Plaines, where many of its members live, with sufficient space to be used as mosque with some interior modifications, and ample parking for its needs.  The building had been vacant for three years.

AIC signed a purchase agreement and applied to the city to rezone the property from Manufacturing to Institutional use, but was denied.  The United States’ complaint alleges that the city’s Comprehensive Plan calls for the neighborhood where the office building is located to transition from Industrial to Residential-Mixed use. The Plan also calls for industrial uses to be concentrated in a different area and for obsolete office buildings to be redeveloped and replaced.

The complaint alleges that the city has given zoning approval to various other places of worship in the past to locate in former commercial properties.  The complaint also alleges that city has allowed various nonreligious assemblies comparable to AIC in all relevant respects to rezone from Manufacturing to Institutional.  It further alleges that the city imposed parking standards and other zoning criteria on AIC that were not supported under its zoning ordinance and that it had never imposed on non-Muslim places of worship.

On the day the complaint was filed, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division, remarked:  “The ability to establish a place for collective worship is a fundamental protection of the First Amendment and our civil rights laws.  The Justice Department will remain vigilant in its mission to ensure that all religious groups enjoy the right to practice their faiths freely.”       

RLUIPA, enacted in 2000, contains multiple provisions prohibiting religious discrimination and protecting against unjustified burdens on religious exercise.  These include a provision stating that religious assemblies and institutions may not be treated “on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution,” a provision barring zoning actions that discriminate against any assembly or institution on the basis of religion or religious denomination, and a provision barring any zoning action that imposes a “substantial burden” on a person or group’s religious exercise, unless the local government can prove that the zoning action is necessary to further a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of achieving that interest.

Further information about RLUIPA, including a Report on the first ten years of its enforcement and Questions and Answers about its various provisions, may be found at the Civil Rights Division Housing and Civil Enforcement Section’s RLUIPA page.

Department of Justice Closes Investigation After Village Zoning Change Permits Church

On September 21, the Department of Justice closed its investigation of the Village of Palatine, Illinois under RLUIPA, after the village changed its zoning to allow the Korean Bethel Presbyterian Church to move into a vacant building formerly used as an indoor golf training center, in an area where various nonreligious places of assembly are permitted.   

The Korean Bethel Presbyterian Church had outgrown its current church in Chicago, a repurposed 5-story commercial building with no elevator.  It had been searching for a new location for approximately ten years to accommodate its aging and disabled members and provide much-needed additional space.  The church found a one-story property in the Village of Palatine with ample parking, which was formerly used as an indoor golf training center.  The property was surrounded by residential neighborhoods, another bilingual church, and an office building.  While the area surrounding the building was designated manufacturing, there was no heavy industry in the area, and the manufacturing district permits alternative educational facilities, martial arts instruction and training facilities, instructional or training facilities for athletes or cheerleaders, and community centers as special uses.

The church purchased the golf facility, and, since the property had been spot zoned in 2005 to allow golf facilities only, sought rezoning to allow a church use.  The Village of Palatine’s Plan Commission unanimously approved the application.  On June 1, 2015, however, the Village Council denied the application, citing concerns over parking and loss of tax revenue, despite the fact that the church had more parking spots than required for an assembly of its size.          

In June, the Department of Justice opened an investigation of the Village of Palatine under RLUIPA.  Among its provisions, RLUIPA prohibits laws that impose a “substantial burden” on religious exercise unless the government can show a compelling government interest pursued through the least restrictive means.  RLUIPA also requires that religious assemblies be treated at least as well as nonreligious assemblies.  As the Senate sponsors of RLUIPA, Senator Hatch and the late Senator Kennedy, stated in explaining the need for RLUIPA, zoning codes “frequently exclude churches in places where [the government] permit[s] theaters, meeting halls, and other places where large groups of people assemble for secular purposes . . . .  Churches have been denied the right to meet in storefronts, in abandoned schools, in converted funeral homes, theaters, and skating rinks – in all sorts of buildings that were permitted when they generated traffic for secular purposes.”

During the pendency of the investigation, the church re-applied for zoning approval.  In August, the Village council approved the Church’s proposal for rezoning, and the Department of Justice closed its investigation.

City of Norwalk Equalizes Treatment of Places of Worship in Response to DOJ Investigation

The Department of Justice closed its RLUIPA investigation of the City of Norwalk, Connecticut on July 30 under RLUIPA after the City made changes to treat religious assemblies equally with nonreligious assemblies in five of its zoning districts. 

The Department opened an investigation of the City of Norwalk’s zoning practices in 2012 in response to the City’s denial of a special use permit to the Al Madany Islamic Center to build a mosque on land it had bought in a residential zoning district.  The United States also intervened in a private suit brought by the Islamic Center against the City in order to defend the constitutionality of RLUIPA, which the City challenged in the course of the case.  A federal trial court agreed with the United States in November 2013 that RLUIPA was a constitutional exercise of Congress’s power.  The private suit resolved by settlement in September 2014.

During the course its investigation, however, the Department identified five zoning districts where places of worship were barred but various nonreligious assemblies were permitted.  For example, one commercial district allowed health clubs, theaters, auditoriums, child day care centers, museums, libraries and meeting halls as permitted uses, but not places of worship.  Another allowed clubs, lodges, and day care centers as special uses, but barred places of worship entirely.  Others allowed theaters, auditoriums, schools, business schools, community centers, libraries, and museums as of right, but excluded places of worship entirely. 

 Section 2(b)(1) of RLUIPA 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.”  As noted in the previous article, this was enacted because of Congress’s concern that places of worship were being excluded from zones where assemblies and institutions with comparable impacts on communities were permitted.

In July, the City of Norwalk Zoning Commission adopted changes to its zoning code to ensure that places of worship are treated equally with other assemblies and institutions.  In response, the Department closed its investigation.

Civil Rights Division Participates in Webinar on Church Security in Wake of Charleston Shootings

The Civil Rights Division participated with officials from the Department of Homeland Security and the DOJ Community Relations Service in a webinar on church security and preparedness (  on July 1, in which more than 1,100 clergy members from around the country took part.   The webinar was held two weeks after the shootings at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina which took the lives of nine church members and injured three.   The suspect in those shootings, Dylan Roof, was indicted on federal hate crime charges on July 22, and also faces state murder and other charges.

The webinar was a response to the vulnerability felt by African American churches and other churches and places of worship in the wake of the Charleston shootings.  The webinar addressed a range of issues for helping make places of worship safe, including developing emergency operations plans, advance security measures that can be taken to make places of worship more secure, services offered by the Department of Homeland Security Protective Security Advisors, training materials for staff, and other resources.  

Below are links to useful resources discussed in the webinar:

  • DHS’s  Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties has compiled a web page with links to information on how to develop an emergency preparedness plan for places of worship, how to request a free site visit and security review from a DHS Protective Security Advisor, and other important security-related topics for schools, places of worship, and other community organizations.
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has created a useful preparedness page for places of worship, with links to webinars, trainings, and other resources to help faith communities be better prepared for many different types of emergencies.
  • The Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Criminal Section page contains information about hate crime laws enforced by the Department of Justice, including laws prohibiting attacks on places of worship.


United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

Updated October 19, 2015