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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.


Florida Man Pleads Guilty to Threat to Firebomb Mosques

On February 12, a Florida man pleaded guilty to violating federal civil rights laws by making bomb threats to two mosques in central Florida and threatening to shoot their congregants.  The defendant, Martin Alan Schnitzler, admitted that he made the threats on November 13, 2015 in response to the terrorist attacks in Paris.

Schnitzler pleaded guilty to obstructing persons in the free exercise of their religious believes in violation of 18 U.S.C.§ 247.  Section 247, also known as the Church Arson Prevention Act, makes it a federal crime to “intentionally deface[ ], damage[ ], or destroy[ ] any religious real property, because of the religious character of that property” or “intentionally obstruct[], by force or threat of force, any person in the enjoyment of that person’s free exercise of religious beliefs, or attempt[ ] to do so.”  Schnitzler faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. 

On the day of the plea, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, the head of the Civil Rights Division, stated:  “Our Constitution and laws guarantee all people – regardless of where they worship – the right to live free from violence and discrimination.  Criminal threats of violence against people or places of worship have no place in our society, and as proven today, the Department of Justice will continue to vigorously prosecute those who commit religion-based hate crimes.”

The plea followed the February 11 announcement by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Connecticut that a Meriden, Connecticut man had pleaded guilty to intentionally damaging a place of worship in violation of 18 U.S.C. 247 by firing a rifle from his residence into a nearby mosque in the early morning hours of November 14, 2015, and a plea on December 29, 2015 by a Springfield, Missouri man to conspiring to intimidate worshippers at a local mosque with threatening graffiti and burned Qurans.

In response to acts of backlash against Muslims, and persons perceived to be Muslim, including Arabs, South Asians, and Sikhs, the Civil Rights Division in January issued a fact sheet on Confronting Discriminatory Backlash after Paris and San Bernardino.   The fact sheet highlights hate crime prosecutions of recent attacks against these communities, op-ed’s by U.S Attorneys across the country, and statements by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and EEOC Chair Jenny Yang on discrimination in schools and in employment.

The facts sheet also describes some of the work the Civil Rights Division is doing to combat religious discrimination and religious hate crimes more broadly, including a speech by Vanita Gupta, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General and head of the Civil Rights Division, to a White House convening in December of a diverse range of religious and civil rights groups on “Celebrating and Protecting America’s Tradition of Religious Pluralism,” and a link to a webinar that the Civil Rights Division presented in December on protecting places of worship from violence. More than 1,900 clergy members and religious leaders from around the country participated in the webinar.  

Civil Rights Division Closes Investigation After City Allows Churches in Commercial Zones

On January 25, the Department of Justice closed its investigation of Garden City, Kansas under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) after the City made changes to treat religious assemblies equally with nonreligious assemblies in its commercial zones. 

The Department opened an investigation of Garden City’s zoning practices in April 2015 after the City issued a notice of violation to the Mt. Zion Church of God in Christ, which had operated in the City’s C-3 commercial zone for 10 years.  The commercial C-2 and C-3 zones permit auditoriums, funeral homes, lodges, meeting halls, private clubs, schools and other assemblies, but prohibited places of worship.

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.”  It was enacted in response to Congress’s concern that places of worship were being excluded from zones where assemblies and institutions with comparable impacts on communities were permitted.  Senators Hatch and the late Senator Kennedy, the Senate sponsors of RLUIPA, noted in a report that 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.”

Even though the City agreed to allow Mt. Zion to continue operation shortly after the Department commenced its investigation, the Department continued investigating to determine whether Garden City’s zoning code could negatively affect other places of worship.

The City subsequently amended its zoning code to allow neighborhood churches and places of worship – defined as those with 500 or fewer congregants – as of right in the C-2 and C-3 commercial zones, and larger churches with a special use permit.  In response, the Department closed its investigation.

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.

Florida City Removes Special Development Standards for Places of Worship; Department of Justice Closes Investigation

The Department of Justice closed its investigation of the City of Lauderhill Florida in December after the City changed its zoning code to remove special restrictions on the location of churches.

The Division opened an investigation of Lauderhill’s zoning practices in May 2014 after receiving complaints that New Life Haitian Baptist Church was denied a permit to rent space in a large 120,000 square foot building known as the Corporate Park in the Commercial Office zone in the City of Lauderhill. The church was denied the permit because of a city rule that churches could not locate within 1,000 feet of another place of worship in the Commercial Office zone, and the Corporate Park already had a church as a tenant.  Our review uncovered that a third church, Sanctuary International Ministries, also sought to locate in the Corporate Park.  Additional rules prohibited churches in freestanding structures in the Commercial Office zone and limited churches to no more than 10% of the square footage of a building in the zone.  The three churches in the Corporate Park would have occupied less than 10% of the building.

The three special rules for churches in the Commercial Office zones – the 1,000 foot separation requirement, the no-freestanding-building rule, and the 10% rule – did not apply to various nonreligious assemblies, including fraternal and social clubs, educational institutions, and fitness centers.  Moreover, the Department’s review revealed that other commercial zones in the City similarly treated religious assemblies less favorably than nonreligious assemblies.  As noted above, one of the purposes of RLUIPA was to ensure that religious assemblies are treated at least as well as nonreligious assemblies.

In September 2015, the City amended its zoning code, repealing the spacing requirements, floor space limitations, and the prohibition of place of worship in free-standing buildings in commercial zones.  The City also amended various other provisions throughout its code to treat religious assemblies equally with nonreligious assemblies, and created a zoning relief procedure to address future RLUIPA concerns.  After reviewing the changes, the Department closed its investigation.

Department of Justice to Sponsor Roundtables on Religious Discrimination and Religious Hate Crimes

At a White House convening of diverse religious and civil rights leaders in December on “Celebrating and Protecting America’s Tradition of Religious Pluralism,” Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, the head of the Civil Rights Division, announced that the Civil Rights Division will be sponsoring a series of roundtables entitled “Combating Religious Discrimination Today,” which will bring together federal officials with religious and civil rights leaders to discuss how the federal government can more effectively work to combat religious discrimination and religion-based hate crimes and attacks on places of worship. 

Each roundtable, to be held at locations across the country in conjunction with U.S. Attorney’s offices and a range of federal agencies including the Departments of Education, Homeland Security and Labor, as well as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, will focus on a particular issue:  religious discrimination and harassment in education; religion based hate crimes and attacks on places of worship; religious discrimination in employment; and discrimination in the construction of places of worship.  The roundtables are intended to serve as a forum for the federal government to engage with advocates and faith communities and an opportunity to discuss additional efforts that can be undertaken to combat religious discrimination. 

The inaugural roundtable will take place in March in Newark, New Jersey and will focus on religious discrimination in schools, colleges and universities.   Additional  roundtables currently planned are one focused on religious hate crimes and protection of places of worship in Dallas on March 29, a roundtable on religion and employment in Birmingham, Alabama in April, and roundtables later in the spring in Detroit on construction of places of worship and a second roundtable on religion and education at Stanford University Law School.  

Civil Rights Division Participates in Workshop in Spain on Religious Discrimination

Attorneys from the Civil Rights Division and the Department of Homeland Security Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held a two-day “Country-to-Country” workshop in Spain on protecting religious freedom, preventing religious discrimination and religious hate crimes, and promoting religious tolerance. The workshop brought together U.S. government and Spanish officials, along with non-governmental organizations and religious communities, to explore how to further each country’s commitment to these issues through enforcement programs, laws, and polices. The workshop, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, is part of the United States' efforts to implement UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Resolution 16/18 on “Combating Intolerance, Negative Stereotyping and Stigmatization of, and Discrimination, Incitement to Violence, and Violence Against Persons Based on Religion or Belief.”

Attorneys from the Civil Rights Division, the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, and a U.S. civil society representative from the Sikh Coalition led the U.S. delegation. Spanish participants included Minstry of Justice officials, prosecutors, and representatives from others government ministries, as well as representatives from Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, and Evangelical communities, and various human rights and interfaith organizations.

The workshop gave the U.S. participants the opportunity to share experiences with their counterparts in Spain about legal processes for protecting against religious discrimination and preserving religious liberty in construction of places of worship, employment, education, and many other areas. They also discussed the distinction between prosecutable hate crimes and protected speech, and ways to counter hateful and intolerant speech through education and community outreach rather than censorship. The program also discussed community engagement by the government with diverse communities as a means to advance religious freedom and tolerance.

The workshop in Spain follows similar recent programs in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Indonesia, and Greece.  Similar programs are planned for several other countries this year.



United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

Updated February 26, 2016