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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.



City Amends Code to Treat Houses of Worship Equally With Other Places of Assembly

On October 20, 2017, the Justice Department closed its investigation of the City of Somerton, Arizona under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), after the city amended its zoning ordinance to treat places of worship equally to comparable nonreligious uses.  The Department had opened the investigation after a Baptist pastor was charged with operating a church in a downtown district without a permit.

The pastor opened a church, the Iglesia Bautista de Somerton, in the Main Street Corridor zoning district. At the time, the district permitted various nonreligious assemblies, including fraternal or social clubs, community recreation centers, libraries, museums, and public cultural facilities, as as-of-right uses.  The city brought misdemeanor charges against the pastor for operating the church without a conditional use permit.  

In February 2017, the Department opened an investigation of the City of Somerton 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.”   This provision, according to lead sponsors Senators Edward Kennedy and Orrin Hatch, was included in RLUIPA because “[z]oning codes frequently exclude churches in places where they permit theaters, meetings halls, and other places where large groups of people assemble for secular purposes. . . . Churches have been denied the right to meet in rented storefronts, in abandoned schools, in converted funeral homes, theaters and skating rinks—in all sorts of buildings that were permitted when they generated traffic for secular purposes.” (quoted in DOJ’s Report on Enforcement of RLUIPA).

On July 28, 2017, the city dropped all charges related to the failure of the Iglesia Bautista de Somerton to obtain a Conditional Use Permit.  Then, on October 17, 2017, the City Council finalized 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 Main Street Corridor zoning district and in several other zoning districts.  In response to the ordinance changes, the Department closed its investigation.

Florida Man Pleads Guilty to Obstructing Free Exercise of Religion

On October 19, a Florida man pleaded guilty to threatening in a voicemail to shoot members of the Islamic Center of Greater Miami.   Gerald Wallace, 35 years old, pleaded guilty in the Southern District of Florida to one count of obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs by making the threatening call.

During the plea hearing, Wallace admitted that on the evening of February 19, 2017, he left a voicemail on the Islamic Center’s phone consisting of profanity about Islam and threatening to shoot the mosque’s congregants.  He further admitted that by leaving this threatening message, he obstructed congregants who worship at the Islamic Center from freely exercising their religious beliefs.  The Church Arson Prevention Act, 18 U.S.C. § 247, makes it a crime to “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.”  § 247(b).

On the day of the plea, John Gore, Acting Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Division stated:  “The Justice Department will not tolerate threats of hate violence, which threaten whole communities’ sense of safety and security. The Justice Department will continue to vigorously prosecute hate crimes so that all people, no matter how they worship, the color of their skin, or their country of origin, can live their lives freely and without fear.”

Wallace faces a maximum statutory penalty 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for his guilty plea to the hate crime charge.  The court set his sentencing hearing for January 17, 2018. 

Attorney General Issues Guidance On Federal Law Protections for Religious Liberty

On October 6, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued guidance to all administrative agencies and executive departments regarding religious liberty protections in federal law.  The memorandum was issued pursuant to President Trump’s Executive Order No. 13798 (May 4, 2017), which directed the Attorney General to “issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections in Federal law” in order “to guide all agencies in complying with relevant Federal law.”

On the day the Guidance was issued, Attorney General Sessions stated:

Our freedom as citizens has always been inextricably linked with our religious freedom as a people. It has protected both the freedom to worship and the freedom not to believe. Every American has a right to believe, worship, and exercise their faith. The protections for this right, enshrined in our Constitution and laws, serve to declare and protect this important part of our heritage.  As President Trump said, "Faith is deeply embedded into the history of our country, the spirit of our founding and the soul of our nation . . . [this Administration] will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore.”

The guidance interprets existing protections for religious liberty in federal law, identifying 20 high-level principles that administrative agencies and executive departments can put to practical use to ensure that the religious freedoms of Americans are protected to their fullest extent.  Principle 18 focuses on religious freedom in the federal workplace, and reiterates that the Guidelines on Religious Exercise and Religious Expression in the Federal Workplace, issued by President Clinton, remain in full force.

Attorney General Sessions also issued an implementation memorandum to the Department of Justice, outlining steps for the Department to take to ensure that the guidance is effectively applied.

Department of Justice Files Brief in Defense of Campus Free Speech

On September 26, the Department of Justice filed a brief in a federal court in Georgia arguing that two Christian students properly stated a claim for violation of their First Amendment rights against Georgia Gwinnett College for preventing them from expressing their religious beliefs to other students on campus.

The two students filed the case, Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, challenging the school’s speech policy on multiple grounds.  According to the complaint, at the time the suit was filed, the college allowed public expression on campus in only two designated “Free Speech Zones” which comprise .0015% of the campus, and only with a permit obtained three days in advance.  One of the two students, Chike Uzuegbunam, obtained a speaking permit so that he could share his faith with other students and hand out religious tracts.  The complaint alleges that Mr. Uzuegbunum sought to express his belief that “all people are sinners and therefore deserve God’s wrath, but that anyone can receive salvation and eternal life by believing in Jesus Christ.”  After 20 minutes of speaking, campus police stopped him because some students had complained about his speech.  When Mr. Uzuegbunum talked to the Director of Office of Student Integrity, the complaint alleges, the Director told him that “fire and brimstone” messages are forbidden on campus, even in the free speech zone.  The second student plaintiff, Joseph Bradford, seeks to engage in similar speech in the future.   The college changed its policy after the suit was filed, but the students continue to seek an injunction requiring permanent change.

The Justice Department brief argues that the plaintiffs’ allegations have adequately presented violations of their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The Justice Department argues the college’s speech policies were not content-neutral, established an impermissible heckler’s veto, and that the speech zones, permitting system, and other restrictions were not narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest.

Upon the filing of the brief in Uzuegbunam, Attorney General Jeff Sessions stated:

“A national recommitment to free speech on campus and to ensuring First Amendment rights is long overdue. Which is why, starting today, the Department of Justice will do its part in this struggle. We will enforce federal law, defend free speech, and protect students’ free expression.”

The same day the Department of Justice field the brief, Attorney General Sessions gave a speech at Georgetown University Law School on the importance of free speech on college campuses. 

A decision in Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski is pending.

Tennessee Men Charged in Mosque Vandalism

On September 28, a federal grand jury in Nashville, Tennessee returned an indictment charging two Murfreesboro men with conspiring to commit a civil rights violation and committing a civil rights violation by vandalizing the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro.

The indictment alleges that Charles Dwight Stout, III, 19, and Thomas Avery Gibbs, 18, vandalized the Islamic Center by spraypainting profane references to Allah on the Center’s exterior and placing bacon—a pork product forbidden by Islam—around an entrance.  The Church Arson Prevention Act, 18 U.S.C. § 247, makes it a crime to “intentionally deface[ ], damage[ ], or destroy[ ] any religious real property, because of the religious character of that property, or attempt[ ] to do so.” § 247(a).

The indictment also alleges that following the vandalism, Stout destroyed the clothing that he wore and permanently deleted the photographs of the vandalism that he took with his cell phone.  Stout was previously indicted on August 30, 2017, for obstructing a federal investigation by deleting photographic evidence. 

Members of the Islamic Center discovered the vandalism when they arrived for morning prayers on July 10, 2017, and immediately reported it to law enforcement. 

If convicted, both men face up to a year in prison.  An indictment is merely an accusation and is not evidence of guilt.  The defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty in a court of law.


Updated October 26, 2017