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Religious Freedom in Focus, Volume 66 - May/2016

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.


Jury Finds Twin Towns on Arizona Utah Border Discriminated Based on Religion in Housing and Policing Practices

On March 7, a federal jury returned a verdict finding that the towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, and their joint water company systematically discriminated against individuals who are not members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) in the provision of housing, utility and policing services in violation of the Fair Housing Act.  Prior to the jury verdict, the parties reached an agreement that the defendants will pay $1.6 million to resolve the monetary claim in the case under the Fair Housing Act

The jury also issued an advisory verdict on the Department of Justice’s claims under Section 14141 of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, finding that the Colorado City Marshal’s Office, the cities’ joint police department, operated as an arm of the FLDS church in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment; engaged in discriminatory policing in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and the Establishment Clause; and subjected individuals to unlawful stops, seizures and arrests in violation of the Fourth Amendment.  Because this statute (in contrast to the Fair Housing Act) does not include a right to a jury trial, the jury’s verdict as to the Section 14141 claim is advisory and may be considered by the court, but is not binding.  The district court has set hearings for October 2016 regarding proposed remedies.

On the day the verdict was handed down, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, stated:  “Today’s verdict reaffirms that America guarantees all people equal protection and fair treatment, regardless of their religious beliefs.” She added:   “When communities deny their residents critical services simply because of where they worship, they violate our laws and threaten the defining values of religious freedom and tolerance that are the foundation of our country.”

This matter was the result of four years of litigation by attorneys from the Civil Rights Division’s Housing and Civil Enforcement Section and the Special Litigation Section.  (More information about the case may be found in Religious Freedom in Focus newsletters from June 2015, January 2013, and June 2012.)   

Man Pleads Guilty to Forcibly Removing Muslim Woman’s Headscarf on Plane

On May 13, a North Carolina man pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights charge arising from an incident in which he forcibly removed the religious headscarf, or hijab, of a Muslim woman during a flight from Chicago to Albuquerque in December.  Gill Parker Payne, of Gastonia, North Carolina, pleaded guilty to violating 18 U.S.C. § 247, which prohibits using force or threat of force to interfere with the free exercise of a person’s religion.

Payne admitted that shortly before landing, he walked up to where the woman was sitting and told her to take off the headscarf, saying something to the effect of, “Take it off! This is America!”,  and then grabbed the hijab and pulled it off. 

On the day of the plea, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said:  “No matter one’s faith, all Americans are entitled to peacefully exercise their religious beliefs free from discrimination and violence.  Using or threatening force against individuals because of their religion is an affront to the fundamental values of this nation, and the Civil Rights Division will continue to be vigilant in protecting the religious liberties guaranteed to all Americans.”

A sentencing hearing has not yet been set.

Guilty Plea in Case Related to Mother Emanuel AME Church shooting

On April 29, a South Carolina man pleaded guilty to concealment and lying to investigators in connection with the investigation of the shooting attack that killed 9 people and injured another during a Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in June 2015.  Joseph Carlton Meeks of Lexington, South Carolina faces up to three years for misprision of a felony and five years for making false statements.

In July 2015, a federal grand jury in South Carolina issued a 33-count indictment  against Dylann Storm Roof, charging him with federal hate crimes and firearms charges for killing and attempting to kill African-American parishioners at the church, known as “Mother Emanuel,” on June 17, 2015.  Those charges, and State capital murder charges, are pending.  An indictment is only an allegation of guilt, and a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Several weeks after the shooting, the Civil Rights Division participated in a webinar for churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship to inform those houses of worship about federal hate crime laws, such as the Church Arson Prevention Act, and federal resources available to help prevent attacks on places of worship. 

Trial Court Properly Required Prison to Accommodate Religious Beard and Prayer Cap, Appeals Court Rules

On May 2, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that a trial court was not clearly erroneous in finding, after a bench trial, that a Texas prison had not used the least restrictive means available to it, as required by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), when it barred a Muslim inmate from wearing a four-inch beard and a prayer cap.  The United States had filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, Ali v. Director, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Correctional Institutions Division.

The Appeals Court held that the prison had demonstrated a compelling governmental interest in stopping contraband and preventing prisoners from changing their appearance.  However, the court held that the prison had not demonstrated that it was pursuing these compelling interests through the least restrictive means.  With regard to the beard, the appeals court noted that the Supreme Court in Holt v. Hobbs (2015) found that barring a half-inch beard was not the least restrictive means to pursue the government’s interest in controlling contraband and preventing changes in appearance. While a four-inch beard poses a more difficult question, the appeals court found that the trial court had not erred in crediting expert witnesses who testified for the prisoner that searches of the beard for contraband could be easily implemented and that allowing beards did not significantly increase the ways in which a prisoner could change his appearance.

With regard to the prayer cap, or kufi, the appeals court likewise held that the district court was not clearly erroneous in crediting the testimony that a kufi could be searched effectively and that it would not affect prisoner appearance significantly.

More information about the Civil Rights Division’s enforcement of the Institutionalized Persons provisions of RLUIPA is available on the Special Litigation Section’s RLUIPA page

Kosher Meal Should be Available to Muslim Inmate, United States Argues

On April 22, the Civil Rights Division filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in Watkins v. Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections supporting a Florida Muslim inmate’s request to obtain a kosher diet. In the Watkins case, a Muslim prisoner sought access to a halel or kosher diet under RLUIPA, along with other religious accommodations.  A federal district court in September 2015 agreed that he had a right to a kosher diet.  The court also ruled that the prisoner’s claim for the right to wear a quarter-inch beard was mooted by the Supreme Court’s ruling allowing such beards in Holt v. Hobbs.

The Watkins case is related to the Civil Rights Division’s case United States v. Florida Department of Corrections.  In June 2015, the district court ruled in favor of the Civil Rights Division’s position and held that Jewish inmates are entitled to receive a kosher diet.  (more information about that ruling is available here)  The State of Florida has appealed that decision, to the Eleventh Circuit; the case has been fully briefed and is now awaiting argument. 

In its brief in Watkins, the United States asserts’ essentially the same arguments that it makes in U.S. v. Florida Department of Corrections:  that the cost of a kosher meal, $3.53 per day, is comparable to the expenditure that the prison system makes for diets for people with diabetes or other special medical conditions; that providing the kosher meal plaintiff requests would have a minimal impact on the overall budget of the prison system; and that the federal Bureau of Prisons and most prison systems in the United States have been successful in providing kosher meals to inmates with religious needs for them without disrupting their operations.

U.S. Attorneys Hold Events Around Country on Countering Backlash Against Muslim, Arab, Sikh, and South Asian Communities

Starting in April, U.S. Attorneys from across the country held a series of roundtables, community meetings, listening sessions, panel discussion, and other events to focus on the increased level of backlash against Muslims, Arabs, Sikhs and South Asians following the terrorist attacks in Brussels, Paris, and San Bernardino. 

The events underscored the Department of Justice’s commitment to ensure that the civil rights of all persons in the United States are protected, and that people should be able to enjoy the basic right of going about their lives without being attacked because of their religion or appearance.  Attorney General Loretta Lynch stated the day this effort was announced:  “These events underscore our ongoing commitment to safeguard the civil rights of every American – including Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian Americans, who are so often the targets of threats on the basis of their appearance or religion.  There is no place for intolerance in our country.  In the weeks and months ahead, the Department of Justice will continue to work with local law enforcement partners and community leaders to defend the safety and the dignity of all our people.”

As part of this series, Wendy Olsen, U.S. Attorney for the District of Idaho and co-chair of the Attorney General Advisory Council’s Civil Rights Subcommittee, met with Muslim, Arab, and other students at Idaho State University to discuss federal civil rights laws.  Kenneth Polite Jr., U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Louisiana delivered remarks at a “Muslims for Peace” event hosted by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Center at Loyola University.  A full list of the events held as part of the initiative are available here.

Updated May 31, 2016