RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN FOCUS, VOLUME 70 - May/2017

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 http://www.justice.gov/crt/spec_topics/religiousdiscrimination. You may also contact the Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination, Eric W. Treene, at (202) 353-8622.

IN THIS ISSUE:

 

Arson Awareness Week Focuses on House of Worship Arson

This week is National Arson Awareness week, and this year, the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) is partnering with various other federal agencies to focus on Preventing Arson at Houses of Worship.  The Civil Rights Division is pleased to be partnering with USFA to encourage public education efforts. 

 

Arson against houses of worship is a significant problem for faith communities across the United States.  From 2000 to 2015, there were an average of 103 such arsons per year.  Half of all fires at houses of worship turn out to involve arson. The Department of Justice has prosecuted many such arsons, as well as threats and attempted bombings against houses of worship.  Cases in recent years include the prosecution of three men for burning down an African-American Pentecostal Church in Springfield, Massachusetts leading to multi-year sentences for each defendant; a guilty plea leading to a 20-year sentence in the arson of a Toledo, Ohio mosque; and the ongoing prosecution of a man accused of plotting to bomb a synagogue in Aventura, Florida last year.

 

The USFA has produced a number of materials to help educate the public about house of worship arson, available at www.usfa.fema.gov/aaw, including a four-page color guide on Protecting Houses of Worship Against Arson, which details measures congregations can take to reduce risk and develop community arson watch programs; a one-page color infographic about house of worship arson and prevention tips; case studies; and other information.

 

Additionally the USFA, FEMA, the Civil Rights Division, and the DOJ Community Relations Service created a one-hour webinar about house of worship arson, which can be viewed at https://icpd.adobeconnect.com/p6rxlypdfyz/.

Senate Judiciary Committee Holds Hearing on Religious Hate Crimes

On May 2, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing entitled “Responses to the Increase in Religious Hate Crimes.”  Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination Eric Treene testified for the Civil Rights Division, emphasizing that combatting religion-based hate crimes are an enforcement priority.

The testimony highlighted that hate crimes “are a serious problem that the Attorney General believes must be part of our national effort to reduce violent crime.”  He noted that the Attorney General Jeff Session’s signature Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety has established a Hate Crime Subcommittee to focus on improving the identification, prosecution, and prevention of hate crimes, as well as data collection about hate crimes.  The task force will hold a summit on hate crimes on June 29, bringing together state, local, and tribal law enforcement, experts, and community groups to explore how best to understand the problem and develop policies and practices to reduce the incidence of hate crimes in America. 

The Senate Judiciary testimony noted that religion-based hate crimes are the second largest category of hate crimes, and grew by 23% from 2014 to 2015, including a 67% rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes and a 9% rise in anti-Jewish hate crimes.   The testimony detailed recent DOJ cases involving violence at places of worship or against persons based on their faith, including the recent charges filed in the Jewish Community Center threats case, the conviction of a Tennessee man in February for plotting to burn down a mosque in the hamlet of Islamberg, New York, and the January death sentence given to Dylann Roof for the murder of nine African-American worshipers at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Man Charged for Threatening Jewish Community Centers

On April 21, the United States charged an 18-year old man with making threatening calls to Jewish Community Centers in Florida and making a false police dispatch call in Georgia.  The man, Michael Ron David Kadar, is currently in police custody in Israel and was charged in criminal complaints filed in federal courts in Orlando, Florida and Macon, Georgia.  Kadar has dual U.S. and Israeli citizenship.

According to the criminal complaint filed in Orlando, the United States alleges that beginning in early January and continuing until March 7, 2017, Kadar made multiple threatening calls involving bomb threats and active shooter threats to numerous Jewish Community Centers throughout Florida. Although no explosives were found, many of the calls resulted in the temporary closure and evacuation or lockdown of the targeted facilities, and required law enforcement and emergency personnel to respond and clear the area.

The federal complaint filed in Macon alleges that on or about January 3, 2017, Kadar made a phone call to a police department conveying false information about an alleged violent emergency situation concerning multiple individuals at a private residence in Athens, Georgia. Police and emergency personnel responded to the scene, only to learn that there was no emergency.

On the day the charges were filed, Attorney General Jeff Sessions remarked that “Today’s charges into these violent threats to Jewish Community Centers and others represent this Department’s commitment to fighting all forms of violent crime.  These threats of violence instilled terror in Jewish and other communities across this country and our investigation into these acts as possible hate crimes continues.” Similarly, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, Tom Wheeler, stated:  “Violent threats intended to instill fear in our religious communities, schools, and homes are an attack on the very fabric of our society and will not be tolerated.  The department will continue to vigorously investigate and prosecute those who engage in such violent acts.”

The investigation into violent threats to Jewish Community Centers, schools and other institutions across this nation continues, including an ongoing investigation into potential hate crime charges.

A complaint is merely an allegation and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law. More information about the Civil Rights Division’s prosecution of hate crimes is found on its hate crimes page.

RLUIPA Applies to Sewage Permit Denial that Prevented Use of Property at House of Worship

In an important case about the prerequisites for suits under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia held on March 29 that RLUIPA’s protections could be triggered by a denial of a sewage permit that had the effect of barring construction of a place of worship.  In the case, United States v. County of Culpeper, the court denied the County’s motion to dismiss the United States’ complaint alleging discrimination against a proposed mosque, holding that denial of a permit for sewage disposal was a “land use regulation” as contemplated by RLUIPA.    

The Justice Department filed the suit on December 12, 2016 alleging that Culpeper County violated RLUIPA when it denied a “pump and haul” sewage permit application to the Islamic Center of Culpeper (ICC), preventing the ICC from building a small mosque in the county. The ICC bought land in a zoning district allowing places of worship by right. The county had told the ICC that the soil on the property, like much soil in the area, could not support a septic system, so they would need to apply for a permit to store waste on the property and periodically have it pumped out and hauled away.

 

According to the suit, since 1992, the county had considered 26 pump and haul applications for religious or commercial uses, and had never denied one. However, the county denied the ICC’s application after residents raised concerns about a mosque locating in the county.   There is currently no mosque in Culpeper County.  The complaint alleged that the permit denial imposed a substantial burden on the ICC’s exercise of religion, and discriminated against it based on religion.  

 

The county moved to dismiss the complaint, primarily based on an argument that a “pump and haul” permit is not a “land use regulation”, but rather is a health regulation.  The District Court rejected this argument.  It noted that RLUIPA states that its provisions are “to be construed in favor of a broad protection of religious exercise, to the maximum extent permitted” by its terms and the Constitution.”  The court also observed that the County’s zoning ordinance had incorporated the septic system rules, such that the County’s “zoning laws make it impossible to receive permission from the County to build a structure without first obtaining the necessary sewage permit.”  Looking at other cases where courts looked at “functional application of a law rather than its abstract, formalistic classification when deciding whether it comes within RLUIPA,” the court had no trouble finding the denial of the pump and haul permit to be a “land use regulation” under RLUIPA.   The court concluded that “the County’s process regarding approval of pump-and-haul permits is best understood as a zoning law.  To hold otherwise would disregard RLUIPA’s rule of broad construction, elevate form over function, and cut against case law indicating that laws applied in a manner akin to zoning laws should be understood as such.”

 

More information about RLUIPA’s land use provisions is available on the Civil Rights Division’s RLUIPA page.

Updated May 11, 2017