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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.



Justice Department and City Resolve RLUIPA Suit Over Mosque Denial

On March 10, a federal court in Michigan approved a settlement of the United States’ suit against the City of Sterling Heights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which alleged that the city illegally denied a mosque approval to build in the city.

The United States had filed suit on December 15 alleging that the city discriminated against the American Islamic Community Center (AICC) on the basis of religion when it denied AICC zoning approval for a mosque. The suit also alleged that the denial imposed a “substantial burden” on AICC’s religious exercise in violation of RLUIPA. 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 accommodate its worship, educational and social needs.

On the day the settlement was announced, Acting Assistant Attorney General Tom Wheeler noted that “Federal law protects the right of faith communities to build places of worship without discrimination or unreasonable burdens on their religious exercise.  We commend the city of Sterling Heights for agreeing to approve the AICC’s mosque, so that it can serve its members and contribute to the surrounding community.”

RLUIPA provides a number of protections for places of worship, religious schools, and other religious uses of land from discriminatory or unreasonable zoning restrictions.  Further information about RLUIPA, including reports on 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.

Justice Department Closes Investigation After Zoning Change Allows Church to Move Into New Facility

On February 13, the Justice Department closed its RLUIPA investigation of the City of Norfolk, Nebraska, after the city amended its zoning code to treat places of worship equally with various nonreligious uses.  The Department had opened the investigation after the city denied Our Savior Lutheran Church permission to move into a building it had purchased in an industrial zone.

In the fall of 2015, Our Savior Lutheran contracted to purchase a 60,000-square-foot former warehouse in an industrial zone in Norfolk.  The church had outgrown facilities it had occupied in Norfolk since the 1960s.  The city told the church, however, that it could not move into the site because it was a church, and churches are not permitted in the industrial zone.  However, the city permits various nonreligious assemblies operate as of right in the industrial zone, including business and civic associations, labor unions, daycare centers, athletic clubs, dance halls, and movie theaters.

In October 2016, the Department of Justice opened an investigation of the City of Norfolk under RLUIPA.  Section 2(b)(1) of RLUIPA states 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.” 

On December 20, the City Council passed an ordinance that made several changes to the City’s zoning laws.  Among other things, the ordinance amended the land use matrix so that religious assemblies are now permitted as of right in the I-1 zoning district.  In light of these changes, Our Savior Lutheran Church is moving ahead with its plans to renovate the distribution warehouse and, after reviewing the changes, the Department closed its investigation. 

Indictment in Catholic Church Arson

On February 17, an Idaho man was arrested on a federal indictment charging him with the arson of a Catholic Church in Idaho.  Shane Rucker, 33, of Bonner’s Ferry, was charged with violation of the Church Arson Prevention Act and use of fire in the commission of a felony for allegedly setting fire to St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Bonner’s Ferry on April 21, 2016. 

While known popularly as the Church Arson Prevention Act, since it was enacted in response to a series of church arsons in the 1990’s, 18 U.S.C.§ 247, covers attacks against any place of worship.  It 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.”

If convicted, Rucker faces up to 20 years on the Church Arson Prevention Act charge, and a mandatory 10 year sentence for use of fire in connection with a felony.  An indictment is only an allegation of a crime, and persons are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

Focus on Anti-Muslim Hate Crimes

FBI hate crime statistics released in November 2016 showed an increase of anti-Muslim hate crimes to 257 reported in 2015, a 67% increase from the year before.  Anti-Muslim hate crimes are the second-largest category of religion-based hate crimes, behind only anti-Jewish hate crimes, with 664 reported in 2015. 

The Department of Justice has seen a flurry of activity in its prosecution of anti-Muslim hate crimes in the last month:

  • On March 8, a Minnesota man was sentenced to 12 months in prison and three years supervised release for sending an anonymous letter threatening to blow up a mosque in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
  • On February 16, a federal jury in Tennessee convicted a Chattanooga man, Robert Doggart, on all counts in a case involving Doggart’s solicitation and threat to attack a mosque and school in Islamberg, New York.
  • On February 8, a Florida man pleaded guilty to threatening two grocery store owners in Ft. Myers with violence if they didn’t shut down their businesses.
  • On February 2, a North Carolina man was sentenced to eight months home confinement for threatening members of a mosque in Raeford, North Carolina.

On the day of the sentencing in the Raeford case, Acting Assistant Attorney General Tom Wheeler expressed the importance of vigorously pursuing these types of crimes:  “The free exercise of religion is a foundational principle of our society.  Hateful threats designed to obstruct this right to religious freedom and to intimidate members of a religion simply because of their beliefs have no place in our communities.  An attack on one religion is an attack on all religions.  The Justice Department will continue to vigorously prosecute crimes motivated by religious animus.”

More information about religion-based hate crimes is available on the Civil Rights Division Hate Crimes page.

Updated March 24, 2017