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Religious Freedom in Focus, Volume 67 - August/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.


Justice Department Issues Report on Religion Roundtable Series

On July 22, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division co-hosted an event at the White House with the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, where  it issued the final report from Combating Religious Discrimination Today, an interagency community engagement initiative launched earlier this year to challenge religious discrimination, promote religious freedom, and enhance enforcement of religion-based hate crimes. 

From March through June – in collaboration with U.S. Attorneys and Federal agency partners – the Civil Rights Division held seven roundtables in six cities to learn firsthand about religious discrimination and solicit feedback from diverse faith leaders, civil rights advocates, and community members about how the Federal government can address these issues.  The final report provides an overview of the themes and concerns expressed at the roundtables, and the recommendations from communities about actions the federal government should take to provide greater protections in four areas:  religious discrimination and religion-based bullying and harassment in education, religious discrimination and accommodation in employment, hate crimes and protection of places of worship, and protection of the rights of religious communities to build places of worship and religious schools.

The White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships published a White House blog post discussing this report and describing efforts federal agencies are undertaking to address religious discrimination.  Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, the head of the Civil Rights Division, also published a blog post about the report.  

Justice Department Issues Report on RLUIPA

On July 22, at the same White House event at which the Combating Religious Discrimination Today final report was released, the Civil Rights Division released a report focusing on its enforcement of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The RLUIPA report is an update of the Civil Rights Division’s 10th Anniversary RLUIPA report from 2010.  The update details the Justice Department’s RLUIPA enforcement from September 2010 to the present.

Among the findings of the report:

  • 55% of Justice Department RLUIPA land-use investigations in the current period have involved communities of various minority faiths including Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists; the other 45% of investigations involved Christian congregations, of which more than half involved predominantly African American, Latino, and Asian-American churches.  
  • The number of RLUIPA land-use cases handled by the Justice Department is growing.  Since September 2010, the Justice Department opened 45 RLUIPA investigations, compared to a total of 51 from 2000 to 2010, representing a 47% increase in investigations per year. 
  • The number of RLUIPA land-use investigations involving Muslims rose from 14% of the Justice Department’s investigations from 2000 to 2010 to 38% in September 2010 to the present.
  • While 84% of non-Muslim RLUIPA land-use matters resolve with favorable outcomes for the religious institution at the investigation stage, only 20% of Muslim RLUIPA land-use matters resolve with favorable outcomes at the investigation stage. 
  • 49% of the investigations handled by Justice Department in the current period involved disparate treatment between religious assemblies and nonreligious assemblies, such as clubs, community centers, and assembly halls.
  • In defense of the religious liberty rights of persons in institutions, since September 2010 the Justice Department has conducted six formal investigations under RLUIPA’s institutionalized persons section, filed three lawsuits, and filed 17 amicus briefs and statements of interest.

The RLUIPA report update complements the findings in the RLUIPA section of the Combating Religious Discrimination Today final report.  That report, based on the observations and recommendations of diverse religious and civil rights leaders, indicated that mosque land-use cases were a large and growing problem, that municipal officials were not treating religious assemblies on equal terms with nonreligious assemblies as required by RLUIPA, and recommends that the federal government do more to educate religious communities and local officials about the requirements of RLUIPA.

Justice Department Files RLUIPA Suit Against Pennsylvania Township that Denied  Zoning Approval for Mosque

On July 21, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Bensalem Township, Pennsylvania, alleging that the Township violated RLUIPA when it denied zoning approval to allow the Bensalem Masjid to build a mosque on three adjoining parcels of land in the Township.  The case was brought by the Department’s Civil Rights Division.

The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, alleges that Bensalem Township’s denial of a variance imposed a substantial burden on the Bensalem Masjid’s religious exercise, treated the Bensalem Masjid less favorably than the Township treats nonreligious assemblies, and discriminated against the Bensalem Masjid on the basis of religion.  The complaint also alleges that the township placed unreasonable limitations on religious assemblies through its land use regulations.  Specifically, the complaint alleges that the Township only permits places of worship in one district without a variance or rezoning by the Township; no properties were available in that district when the Bensalem Masjid acquired the property.

“Our Constitution protects the rights of religious communities to build places of worship free from unlawful interference and unnecessary barriers,” Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division, said on the day the suit was filed.  “The Department of Justice will continue to challenge unjustified local zoning actions around the country when they encroach upon this important civil right.”

More information about RLUIPA, including questions and answers about the law and other documents, may be found at the Civil Rights Division Housing and Civil Enforcement Section’s RLUIPA information page.

Appeals Court Rules Florida Prisons Must Provide Kosher Meals

On July 14, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upheld a federal district court ruling that the Florida Department of Corrections (DOC) violated RLUIPA by failing to provide kosher meals to prisoners. The court of appeals in United States v. Florida Department of Corrections upheld the lower court’s ruling that denying the meals imposed a substantial burden on the religious exercise of Jewish prisoners and others who need a kosher diet, and that the Department of Corrections had not demonstrated that its concerns over increased costs were compelling.  The Department of Justice originally brought this case in 2012 following a 15-month investigation.

RLUIPA's institutionalized persons section provides that no government may impose a “substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person” in certain institutions, including prisons, “unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

Prior to the United States’ lawsuit, the Florida Department of Corrections was the only large correction system in the country that did not offer kosher meals.  While the suit was pending, the DOC implemented a policy making kosher meals available, but continued to argue that RLUIPA did not require it to do so and that it could discontinue the program at any time.  The United States continued to press for an injunction, and on April 30, 2015, the district court entered summary judgment for the United States and issued a permanent injunction requiring the DOC to provide kosher meals.

Upholding the lower court’s ruling, the court of appeals held that the DOC had not shown that it had a compelling interest in controlling costs that would be compromised by offering kosher meals.  The appeals court noted that the kosher meal, which “consists of peanut butter, cereal, bread, sardines, cabbage, beans, carrots, crackers, and an occasional piece of fruit, all served cold,” was slightly more expensive than the regular meal, costing $3.55 per day per prisoner versus $1.89 for the standard fare.  However, special therapeutic diets such as low salt or diabetic diets cost up to $3.05 per day, and the difference for the kosher meals was relatively small in light of the DOC’s $2.2 billion budget. 

The court of appeals held that the DOC had failed to explain how it had a compelling interest based on cost for not providing kosher meals in light of the fact that it had in the past offered kosher meals, that it offers therapeutic meals, and that other large prison systems were able to offer kosher meals.  The court held that the DOC failed to meet its burden to produce specific evidence showing how denying kosher meals is necessary to further a compelling interest in containing costs. 

The court further held that even assuming there were a compelling interest here, the DOC had not shown how denying kosher meals was the least restrictive means of achieving its cost-saving objective. The court observed that the DOC was not currently applying its rules strictly to screen out those who do not have a sincere need for kosher meals or enforcing participation rules, both of which would have reduced the costs of the program.  The court therefore held that the permanent injunction requiring the DOC to provide kosher meals must remain in place.

The Civil Rights Division's Special Litigation Section enforces the institutionalized persons section of RLUIPA.  More information is available on the Special Litigation Section’s RLUIPA information page.

Florida Man Charged with Civil Rights Violations for Synagogue Bombing Attempt

On June 30, James Gonzalo Medina, 40, of Hollywood, Florida, was charged by superseding indictment with attempting to damage religious property in violation of  18 U.S.C. § 247.  The superseding indictment follows an initial charge on May 2, 2016, that Medina attempted to use a weapon of mass destruction – an explosive device – at a synagogue in Aventura, Florida.

Section 247, enacted in response to a rash of church arsons in the 1990’s, 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.”  Medina is now charged with knowingly attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction against a person or property within the United States and attempting to damage religious property.  If convicted, Medina faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.

The arrest was the culmination of an undercover operation during which Medina was closely monitored by the South Florida Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF).  The explosive device that he allegedly sought and attempted to use had been rendered inoperable by law enforcement and posed no threat to the public.

According to allegations contained in the original complaint, in March 2016 Medina came to the attention of the FBI due to his conversations about attacking a synagogue in South Florida.  The FBI was able to gauge Medina’s interest in the plot and collect evidence through the use of a confidential human source (CHS), to whom Medina expressed anti-Semitic views and identified the Aventura-Turnberry Jewish Center in Aventura as the target of his attack.

The complaint further alleged that Medina wanted to use an explosive device to commit the attack and engaged the CHS and an undercover FBI employee about the details of his planned criminal conduct.  In preparation for the proposed attack, Medina studied the synagogue property to assess its vulnerabilities.  On April 29, 2016, Medina took possession of an inert explosive device and was arrested while approaching the synagogue.  Medina was under FBI surveillance, and the FBI effectively mitigated any danger posed to the public.

A complaint and indictment are merely accusations and a defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty in a court of law. 

More information about hate crimes, including religious hate crimes, is available on the Civil Rights Division Criminal Section’s hate crime information page

Updated August 4, 2016