RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN FOCUS, VOLUME 73 - January/2018

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:

President, Attorney General, Recognize Religious Freedom Day

President Trump issued a Religious Freedom Day proclamation on January 16, marking the anniversary of the passage of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom.  This landmark bill, enacted in 1786, set forth the principles and framework that inspired the U.S. Constitution’s religious freedom provisions three years later.

President Trump highlighted that “Americans from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds remain steadfast in a commitment to the inherent values of faith, honesty, integrity, and patriotism.  Our Constitution and laws guarantee Americans the right not just to believe as they see fit, but to freely exercise their religion.”

On Religious Freedom Day, Attorney General Jeff Sessions also issued a proclamation, noting the recent work of the Department of Justice in religious liberty cases and stating: "On this Religious Freedom Day, as we remember this historic statute, we do well to remember the timeless truths it articulates: that religious freedom is an inalienable human right which deserves the protection of the law and that ‘truth is great and will prevail if left to herself.’”

Department of Justice Files Amicus Brief in Montana School Choice Case

On January 18, the Department of Justice filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court of Montana supporting parents who claim that the state unconstitutionally discriminated against their children when it barred them from a private school scholarship program because they attend a religious school.

The case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, involves children attending a Christian school who were denied participation in the Montana Tax Credit Scholarship Program after the Department of Revenue issued a rule declaring ineligible students attending schools owned or controlled “by a church, religious sect, or denomination.”  Under the scholarship program, Montana taxpayers can contribute up to $150 to privately run scholarship organizations and receive a tax credit. The scholarship organizations then provide scholarships for families attending non-public elementary and secondary schools in the state.

The parents filed suit in December 2015 after their children were denied participation in the scholarship program because they attend a Christian school.  A state trial court ruled in favor of the parents in May 2017 and issued an injunction requiring them to be allowed to participate.  The state appealed, arguing that the rule is valid under state law, and that it does not violate the U.S. Constitution.

The United States’ brief argues that excluding these families from the scholarship program because they have chosen to attend a religious school violates their rights under the U.S. Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause, which forbids government discrimination on the basis of religion.

“The Constitution prohibits states from discriminating based on religion,” said Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand on the day the brief was filed.  “Today’s amicus brief is further proof that this administration will lead by example on religious liberty.”

The United States’ brief notes that school choice scholarships programs like this one are plainly permissible under the Establishment Clause.  And, the brief argues, the Supreme Court’s holding last year in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer makes clear that blocking students attending religious schools from participating in such scholarship programs violates the Free Exercise Clause.  In Trinity Lutheran, the Court held that a Missouri program providing recycled tires for playground surfacing violated the Free Exercise Clause when it excluded religious organization from the program.  The Court held that “the Free Exercise Clause protects religious observers against unequal treatment and subjects to the strictest scrutiny laws that target the religious for special disabilities.”  The United States brief argues that the Montana scholarship program likewise cannot treat families attending religious schools unequally.

The brief draws on principles set forth in Attorney General Sessions’ Guidance on Federal Law Protections for Religious Liberty issued on Oct. 6, 2017.  The Guidance states that “government may not target persons or individuals because of their religion” and may not “deny religious schools—including schools whose curricula and activities include religious elements—the right to participate in a voucher program, so long as the aid reaches the schools through independent decisions of parents.”

Florida man sentenced in Islamic Center Threat Case

On January 17, a federal judge in Florida sentenced a Miami-area man to 12 months and one day in prison and three years’ supervised release for threatening to shoot members of a mosque in Miami Gardens, Florida.  The man, Gerald Wallace, pleaded guilty in October 2017 to leaving a threatening message on the voice mail of the Islamic Center of Greater Miami in February 2017, in violation of federal civil rights law.

Wallace pleaded guilty to one count of obstructing the free exercise of the religious beliefs of the members of the mosque in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 247 by leaving a profanity-laden voicemail denouncing Islam and stating that he was going to shoot the congregants.  The statute, known as the Church Arson Prevention Act, makes it a crime to destroy, damage, or deface religious property or use violence or threats of violence to interfere with religious exercise on religious property.

 “Our Constitution and laws guarantee all people – regardless of where they worship – the right to live free from violence and discrimination,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore on the day of the sentencing.  “The Justice Department will continue to vigorously prosecute those who commit violent acts of hate by threat or action.”

“Hate crimes violate our country’s most fundamental principles,” said U.S. Attorney Benjamin G. Greenberg. “Today, Wallace was sentenced for depriving the Islamic Center’s congregants of the right to freely exercise their religion.  This office will continue to aggressively prosecute hate crimes in order to protect those in our community who would otherwise fall victim to discriminatory violence.”

Further information about the Civil Rights Division’s efforts to combat hate crimes is available on its Hate Crime Information Page.

Justice Department Defends Archdiocese of Washington’s Religious Liberty

On January 16, the Department of Justice filed an amicus brief with a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., supporting the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington’s religious discrimination and free-speech suit against the Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA).  The suit alleges that WMATA violated the Archdiocese’s constitutional and other federal rights when it barred ads for the Archdiocese’s “Find the Perfect Gift” Christmas advertising campaign.

In October 2017, the Archdiocese sought to purchase space on the sides of WMATA buses for its Christmas ad campaign. The ads would have shown a silhouette of three shepherds walking alongside sheep beneath a starry night, accompanied by text stating “Find the Perfect Gift” along with a web address and hashtag.  The web address would lead to a site declaring “Jesus is the Perfect Gift”, along with links to worship service places and times, charitable activities to engage in and contribute to during the Christmas season, and links to information about Christmas activities and traditions.  WMATA denied the request, claiming that the advertisement violated WMATA’s policies banning ads that “promote or oppose any religion, religious practice or belief.”  The Archdiocese brought suit and sought a preliminary injunction to allow it to run its ad campaign.  A federal district court in Washington denied the injunction on December 8, and the Archdiocese appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

The Department of Justice’s Amicus brief argues that by censoring the Archdiocese’s “Find the Perfect Gift” message, WMATA has discriminated against religious perspectives on the Christmas holiday.  The brief contends that WMATA has no objection to advertisements suggesting that a gift of jewelry or other item is a “perfect gift” for Christmas, but bars an ad such as the Archdiocese’s suggestion that the perfect gift is something religious.  The brief quotes WMATA’s statement in a court filing that it had “simply prohibited advertisements related to the religious half of Christmas, not the secular half.”  This, the United States brief, contends, is classic viewpoint discrimination against religious speech forbidden by the Constitution.

“As the Supreme Court has made clear, the First Amendment prohibits the government from discriminating against religious viewpoints,” said Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand the day the brief was filed.  “By rejecting the Archdiocese’s advertisement while allowing other Christmas advertisements, WMATA engaged in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.”

The brief argues “if a company can urge an ad’s viewers to buy their loved ones material gifts for Christmas, the First Amendment requires that the Archdiocese be allowed to encourage the same audience ‘to seek spiritual gifts during this Christmas season.'”

The case is scheduled for oral argument on March 26.

Updated January 30, 2018

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