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.


DOJ Sends Letter to U.S. Mayors Highlighting RLUIPA

On December 15, the Civil Rights Division sent a letter to mayors and other municipal leaders throughout the country highlighting the requirements of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).  The letter outlines the land-use provisions of RLUIPA, which protects the right of religious assemblies and institutions from discriminatory or unjustifiably burdensome zoning and landmarking laws.  The letter describes documents and resources available from the Department of Justice to help local governments comply with RLUIPA.

In 2000, Congress, by unanimous consent and with the support of a broad range of civil rights and religious organizations, enacted RLUIPA to protect the rights of places of worship, and other religious institutions such as religious schools and social service providers, to locate in communities.  The letter describes the purposes behind RLUIPA, and its basic provisions:  a requirement that zoning and landmarking laws may only impose a “substantial burden” on religious exercise through application of regulations if it is the least restrictive way to achieve a compelling governmental interest; a requirement that religious assemblies be treated as well as nonreligious assemblies like fraternal organizations and assembly halls; a bar on discrimination based on religion or religious denomination in land use laws; and a bar on laws that totally or unreasonably exclude religious assemblies from a jurisdiction. 

The letter to local government officials was prompted by a concern that the Civil Rights Division heard from religious and civil rights leaders in a series of roundtables on religious freedom held around the country in 2016 (this series is summarized in the July 2016 report Combating Religious Discrimination Today)Participants reported their perception that municipal, county, and other state and local officials were insufficiently familiar with the land use provisions of RLUIPA, and that litigation could be avoided if local officials were better informed of their obligations under RLUIPA early in the process.  

In addition to outlining the different provisions of RLUIPA in detail and providing case examples, the letter provides links to DOJ resources on RLUIPA, including Questions and Answers on RLUIPA, the DOJ RLUIPA web page, and Reports on DOJ's RLUIPA enforcement efforts issued in 2010 and 2016.

Focus on Religion-Based Violence and Attacks on Places of Worship

There is no element of religious freedom so basic as the ability to go about one’s life and gather with others for worship without fear of physical assault.  Protecting this basic right is an important part of the Department of Justice’s work.

On November 14, the FBI released its Hate Crimes Statistics for 2015.  These annually compiled statistics showed a six percent rise in hate crimes overall.  Religion-based hate crimes rose 13 percent, including a 67 percent rise in anti-Muslim crimes and a 9 percent rise in anti-Jewish crime.  2015 marked the first year that anti-Sikh and anti-Hindu crimes were compiled. These yielded lower numbers than anecdotal evidence would suggest, but that is likely to change as law enforcement agencies around the country receive training on the new data categories. Attorney General Loretta Lynch released a video about the FBI hate crimes report on November 18.

The Civil Rights Division continues to aggressively prosecute attacks on places of worship and against religious individuals.  Consistent with the increase seen in the FBI Hate Crime Statistics, prosecutions involving attacks and threats against mosques have been particularly notable, including a November 30 guilty plea by a Minnesota man for mailing a bomb threat to a mosque, charges filed in October against three Kansas men for conspiring to blow up an apartment complex with an attached mosque, and a North Carolina man who pleaded guilty in May to forcibly pulling off a Muslim woman’s headscarf on an airplane.  The Civil Rights Division likewise is prosecuting attacks on synagogues - such as the June indictment of a Florida man for plotting to bomb synagogue in Aventura, Florida, and churches, including two prosecutions relating to the horrific attack on a Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina that killed 9 people in 2015.

Attorney General Lynch stressed the importance of protecting against violence and threats of violence based on religion in a speech on December 12 at the ADAMS Center mosque in Northern Virginia. She noted that our “Bill of Rights guarantees the freedom of religion in its very first clause.”  On the particular issue of hate crimes against Muslims, she observed that “Muslim Americans are our friends and family members, our doctors and nurses, our police officers and firefighters. They own businesses and teach in classrooms. Thousands of them have fought for the American flag. Many have died defending it. . . . [T]o impose a blanket stereotype on all members of any faith because of the actions of those who pervert that faith is to go backwards in our thinking and our discourse, and to repudiate the founding ideals of this country.”

Consent Decree Resolves Suit Over New York Church’s Efforts to Locate in Commercial District

A federal court in New York entered a consent decree on November 23 resolving allegations by the United States that the City of Port Jervis, New York, violated a church’s rights under RLUIPA when it changed its zoning code to ban places of worship in two zoning districts where they were previously allowed as of right.  The order resolves a lawsuit brought by the United States in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York after the Goodwill Evangelical Presbyterian Church entered into a contract to purchase property within one of those zones to use as a church.

Goodwill Church has a longstanding main location in Montgomery, New York.  In recent years, with a growing congregation, it opened two additional branches in New Paltz and Port Jervis.  Initially, its Port Jervis branch was operating out of a small rented space, which it had access to only on Sunday mornings.  Seeking a permanent and more appropriate space in the City’s downtown area, in mid-2015 the Church located a property in Port Jervis’s Central Business District, which permitted places of worship as of right.

As the Goodwill Church prepared to close on the property in November 2015, the city passed a law removing places of worship as permitted used in the Central Business District, as well as the City’s Service Commercial District.  The law, the United States alleged, was passed out of concern that the presence of the Goodwill Church, or other churches, could discourage commercial development, including discouraging establishments serving liquor due to a state law regulating the proximity of liquor serving establishments to places of worship and schools.

On November 21, 2016, the United States filed suit to enforce compliance with RLUIPA. The suit alleged that the zoning change imposed a "substantial burden" on the religious exercise of the Goodwill Church, and that the city violated RLUIPA Section 2(b)(1), which requires religious assemblies to be treated at least as well as nonreligious assemblies.  The commercial zones permit fraternal organizations and nonprofit membership clubs, preschools, day-care centers, and nursery schools, while excluding churches.  

Under the consent order reached with the United States, the city is required to amend its zoning laws and regulations to repeal the ban on the use of property for places of worship in the two zoning districts at issue and to treat religious assemblies or institutions equally with nonreligious assemblies or institutions.  The consent decree also requires the city to provide training on the requirements of RLUIPA to certain city officials and officers, among other requirements.

Department of Justice Files Three RLUIPA Land-Use Cases Involving Mosques

The Department of Justice recently filed three suits in three different states alleging that local governments violated RLUIPA in denying approval for mosques.  While a July 2016 report on DOJ RLUIPA enforcement revealed that the largest number of RLUIPA investigations opened by the Civil Rights Division involved churches and other Christian institutions (45% of the Division’s investigations), the number of investigations involving mosques grew from 14% of the Division’s investigations for the 2000 to 2010 period to 38% of its investigations from 2010 to 2016.  Moreover, the report found that investigations involving mosques and Islamic schools were much less likely to be resolved by investigations than church and synagogue investigations, resulting in more filed suits by the Department of Justice. The three new suits are:

  • Sterling Heights, Michigan (U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Michigan):  The Justice Department filed a lawsuit on December 15 against Sterling Heights, Michigan, alleging that the city violated RLUIPA when it denied approval for the American Islamic Community Center (AICC) to build a mosque in a residential district in the city.  The complaint alleges that Sterling Heights discriminated against the AICC on the basis of religion when it refused to approve the land use request to allow the AICC to build a mosque.  It further alleges that the denial imposed a substantial burden on the AICC’s religious exercise.  The AICC, currently located in Madison Heights, Michigan, sought the Sterling Heights location because it is more centrally located for its members and its current space has become too small to accommodated its worship, educational and social needs. 
  • Culpeper, Virginia (U.S. District Court, Western District of Virginia):  The Justice Department filed a lawsuit on December 12, alleging that Culpeper County violated RLUIPA when it denied a sewage permit application to the Islamic Center of Culpeper (ICC), effectively preventing the ICC from building a small mosque on land that it had purchased in the county.  The land is located in a zoning district where religious land use is permitted by right.  The complaint alleges that the county imposed a substantial burden on the ICC’s exercise of religion and discriminated against it based on religion when it refused to grant a “pump and haul” permit to allow the ICC to transport sewage from the ICC’s property to a point of disposal.  The county had told the ICC that such a permit was necessary because its soil, like much soil in the area, could not support a septic system.  The complaint alleges that, since 1992, the county has considered 26 applications and never denied a pump and haul permit to a commercial or religious use prior to the ICC's application.
  • Bernards Township, NJ (U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey):  On November 22, 2016, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit alleging that the Township violated RLUIPA when it denied zoning approval to allow the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge to build a mosque on land it purchased in the Township.  The land is located in a zone that, at the time of the Islamic Society’s zoning request, permitted the construction of places of worship as of right.  The complaint alleges that the Township discriminated based on religion by applying standards and imposing procedural requirements on the mosque that it had not applied to previous applicants.  The suit also alleges that the Township’s actions imposed a substantial burden on the mosque without a compelling governmental justification, and that the Township has imposed an unreasonable limitation on all places of worship in the Township by raising the minimum lot size to 6 acres and imposing other new requirements.

    Consent Order Resolves Michigan Religious School Lawsuit

    A federal court in Detroit entered a consent order on October 14, 2016 resolving allegations by the United States that Pittsfield Charter Township, Michigan violated RLUIPA in denying zoning approval to allow the Michigan Islamic Academy (MIA) to build a school on a vacant 27-acre site on a major street.

    MIA, a pre-K through grade 12 school currently located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, sought to build a new facility in Pittsfield because it had outgrown its current location.  In October 2011, the Township denied a rezoning application, which would have allowed MIA to build a new school on a vacant parcel of land in the Township.  The United States' complaint, filed in October 2015,  alleged that the Township imposed a substantial burden on MIA’s exercise of religion when it refused to grant the rezoning request.

    As part of the settlement, the Township has agreed to permit MIA to construct a school on the vacant parcel of land, to treat the school and all other religious groups equally, and to publicize its non-discrimination policies and practices.  The Township also agreed that its leaders and various Township employees will attend training on the requirements of RLUIPA, and periodically report  to the Justice Department. 

    The case was brought by the Civil Rights Division’s Housing and Civil Enforcement Section and the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of Michigan. 


    Updated December 22, 2016

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