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:
- Civil Rights Division Marks 60th Anniversary
- Department of Justice Tells Supreme Court that First Amendment Forbids Compelling Baker to Violate Conscience
- United States Resolves Suit Against Pennsylvania Township Over Denial of Approval for Mosque
- Sewage Regulation is Land Use Regulation Under RLUIPA
- Florida Man Pleads Guilty to Federal Hate Crime and WMD Charge for Attempted Attack on Synagogue
Acting Assistant Attorney General Highlights Prosecution of Hate Crimes in Address at Virginia Mosque
On September 13, Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore gave remarks on federal hate crime prosecutions at an event honoring law enforcement at the ADAMS Center mosque in Sterling, Virginia.
Acting Assistant Attorney General Gore stressed that combating hate crimes, including religious hate crimes, are a DOJ priority, echoing Attorney General’s statement in March that “[w]e will not tolerate threats or acts of violence targeting any person or community in this country on the basis of their religious beliefs or background.”
Recent DOJ prosecutions involving attacks against Muslim, Arab, Sikh, South Asian, and Hindu Americans, and people perceived to be members of these groups, include a June 22 indictment of a man charged with the arson of a mosque in Victoria, Texas; a June 15 indictment of a Florida man for threatening to shoot mosque members; a June 14 sentencing of a Tennessee man to 235 months in prison for soliciting another person to violate federal civil rights laws by burning down a mosque in Islamberg, N.Y; and a June 9 indictment of a man charged with shooting two Indian men at a bar in Kansas, killing one, because he thought they were Iranian, and shooting and wounding a bystander who tried to help. More information is available on the Civil Rights Division’s Criminal Section Home Page and its Hate Crimes page.
Civil Rights Division Marks 60th Anniversary
September 9 marked the 60th anniversary of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. On that day in 1957, President Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first civil rights law passed since Reconstruction. The Civil Rights Division issued a press release describing the 1957 Act and the history of the Division, and provided a link to historical materials. Acting Assistant Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore remarked: “Since its founding, the Civil Rights Division’s efforts have helped transform the social landscape of our country and touched the lives of millions of Americans. Today, the Division remains at the center of the effort to achieve equal justice and opportunity for all and to protect the most vulnerable members of our society.” More information about the broader work of the Civil Rights Division is available at the Civil Rights Division homepage.
While responding to racial discrimination and racial hate crimes was the motivating purpose and central focus of the first civil rights laws enacted by Congress, and remains the most significant civil rights issue today, Congress included in the landmark civil rights laws protections against discrimination and hate crimes on other bases, including religion. These laws are enforced by the Civil Rights Division, along with other laws are focused on religious liberty and religious hate crimes, including the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and the Church Arson Prevention Act. Information about these laws and the Civil Rights Division’s enforcement of them is available here and here.
Department of Justice Tells Supreme Court that First Amendment Forbids Compelling Baker to Violate Conscience
On September 7, the United States filed an amicus brief supporting the petitioners in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Petitioners in the case are a cake shop and its owner whom the Colorado Civil Rights Commission found to be in violation of the State public accommodation law for refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex marriage celebration. The baker claimed that it violated his religious conscience and expression rights to be required to bake a customized wedding cake celebrating a same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court granted certiorari in June.
The United States’ brief notes that “[f]or the most part, individual First Amendment rights have coexisted comfortably with federal and state public accommodations laws. That is because those laws generally focus on preventing discriminatory conduct rather than modifying the content of expression.”
The brief notes, however, that “[h]eightened scrutiny is appropriate at least where a law both compels the creation, for a particular person or entity, of speech or of a product or performance that is inherently communicative, and compels the creator’s participation in a ceremony or other expressive event.”
Here, the brief argues, “Colorado’s law requires Phillips to design and create a custom wedding cake that is inherently communicative . . . [and] forces Phillips to participate, through his inherently communicative creation, in an important ritual at a wedding celebration—a profoundly expressive, and often religious or sacred, event.” This, the brief argues, is compelled speech in violation of conscience which requires heightened scrutiny, and asks the Supreme Court to reverse the Colorado Court of Appeals.
United States Resolves Suit Against Pennsylvania Township Over Denial of Approval for Mosque
On September 5, the Civil Rights Division announced that it had reached an agreement with Bensalem Township, Pennsylvania, to resolve allegations that the Township violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) when it denied zoning approval to allow a local Muslim organization to build a mosque on land it owned in the Township.
The United States filed suit in July 2016, alleging that the Township violated the RLUIPA rights of the Bensalem Masjid when it denied it a variance to build a mosque on three parcels of land that it had purchased on a main road in the Township. The suit alleged that the denial imposed a substantial burden on the Bensalem Masjid’s religious exercise, treated the group less favorably than the Township treated nonreligious assemblies in similar zones, and discriminated against it on the basis of religion in light of its treatment of prior variance applications by other religious entities. The suit also alleged that the Township violated RLUIPA’s prohibition on governments placing unreasonable limitations on religious assemblies, based on the zoning code’s restrictions on places of worship generally. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylania denied the Township’s motion to dismiss in November 2016.
As part of the agreement, the Bensalem Masjid will be permitted to build its mosque. The Township has also agreed to review and amend its zoning ordinance to comply with the requirements of RLUIPA, and take other remedial measures. The Township also resolved a private lawsuit brought by the Bensalem Masjid against Bensalem Township.
On the day the agreement was announced, Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, stated: “Federal law protects the rights of all religious communities to build places of worship free from discrimination. This agreement ensures that all citizens of Bensalem Township may freely exercise this important civil right.”
Earlier this summer, the Department of Justice also resolved RLUIPA suits against a New Jersey Township over its denial of approval for construction of a mosque, and against an Illinois city that barred a Bosnian Muslim organization from moving into an existing office building.
More information about the land-use provisions of RLUIPA is available on the Civil Rights Division’s Housing and Civil Enforcement Section’s RLUIPA page. Persons who believe they have been subjected to discrimination in land use or zoning decisions also may contact the U.S. Attorney’s Office Civil Rights Hotline at (855) 281-3339 or the Civil Rights Division Housing and Civil Enforcement Section at (800) 896-7743.
Sewage Regulation is Land Use Regulation Under RLUIPA
Also on September 5, the Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest in a RLUIPA case in federal court in New Jersey arguing that a city’s denial of a sewage permit to an Islamic Center was a “zoning law” under RLUIPA.
RLUIPA’s land use protections apply to any applications of zoning or landmarking law. The Department argues in the case, Garden State Islamic Center v. City of Vineland, that the city’s sewage regulations are both incorporated into its zoning law, and were the means by which it applied its other zoning provisions in this case.
In a similar case that was brought by the United States, a federal court in Virginia held this past March that the sewage restrictions applied in that case constituted a land use regulation under RLUIPA.
Florida Man Pleads Guilty to Federal Hate Crime and WMD Charge for Attempted Attack on Synagogue
On August 16, a Florida man pleaded guilty to a federal hate crime (18 U.S.C. 247) for attempting to attack an Aventura, Florida synagogue, and to a charge of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction.
During the plea proceedings, James Gonzalo Medina admitted that in March and April 2016, he planned to conduct a firearms or explosives attack on the Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center and took steps to prepare for this attack, including conducting surveillance of the Jewish Center. On April 29, 2016, Medina took possession of what he believed to be an explosive device, obtained from a Southern Florida Joint Terrorism Task Force agent, and approached the Jewish Center on foot with the device in hand, intending to commit the attack. A sentencing date has not been set.
On the day of the plea, Attorney General Sessions said: “Acts of bigotry and hatred are evil and have no place in our society. One of the top priorities of this Department of Justice is reducing violent crime, and you can be sure that this includes hate crime. We will not tolerate this repugnant lawlessness, and we will be vigilant in prosecuting hate crime offenders to the fullest extent of the law. I want to thank the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Southern Florida Joint Terrorism Task Force, and all of the Department of Justice attorneys and staff who worked to bring this criminal to justice, and I assure every American that the Department of Justice is committed to protecting their rights.”
Attorney General Sessions created a Hate Crimes Subcommittee to his Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety. The Hate Crimes Subcommittee held a one-day summit in June in which stakeholders from around the country and the Department of Justice came together to discuss ways to enhance the investigation, prosecution, and prevention of hate crimes, and improve hate-crime data collection. More information about the Civil Rights Division’s efforts to combat hate crimes are available on its Hate Crimes page.