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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.



Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore Addresses Hate Crimes at Capitol Hill Event

On March 20, John Gore, the Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, spoke about the Department of Justice’s hate crime enforcement efforts at a Capitol Hill event sponsored by the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Committee.  The Muslim-Jewish Advisory Committee is a group of national Muslim and Jewish leaders from the business, legal, and nonprofit communities.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Gore reiterated that combatting hate crimes “is, and will continue to be, one of the Department’s top priorities.”  He noted: “Hate crimes strike at our most basic American values.  As Attorney General Sessions said just days ago, targeting people because of who they are or what they believe ‘target[s] the bedrock principles on which our nation was founded.’” 

Acting Assistant Attorney General Gore noted that the Attorney General’s observation is “especially true of religiously-motivated hate crimes.  The freedom of religion is the first freedom that the Founding Fathers enshrined in the First Amendment.  So when criminals target people because of their religion, they are targeting the bedrock of our Bill of Rights.”

The full text of his remarks is available here.

Requiring Clergy Letter for Religious Accommodation Violated Title VII, Suit Alleges

On March 6, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit alleging that a Wisconsin county discriminated against a former nursing assistant at a county-owned nursing home in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it denied her a religious accommodation.  The suit alleges that Ozaukee County refused to allow her to wear a mask instead of getting a flu vaccine, an accommodation offered to other employees with religious objections to vaccination, because she did not belong to a religious organization that could provide her with a clergy letter supporting her request. 

According to the complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, the former nursing assistant sincerely believes that the Bible teaches that the body is a holy temple and therefore she is forbidden to put foreign substances such as flu vaccines into it.  She requested permission pursuant to the nursing home’s written vaccination policy to wear a mask during flu season in lieu of the vaccination.  However, the policy requires employees to provide “a written statement from their clergy leader” explaining the need for a religious exemption.  She did not belong to a church, but offered to provide a written explanation, with Scriptural references, and to provide testimony of friends and family members about her sincere religious belief. 

The county denied the exemption and told her she would be terminated if she did not get the vaccine.  She eventually agreed to be vaccinated, against her conscience, and remains troubled by having given in to this demand.

On the day the suit was filed, Acting Assistant Attorney General Gore said: “When employees’ religious principles conflict with work rules, they should not have to choose between practicing their religion and keeping their jobs if a reasonable accommodation can be made without undue hardship to the employer.”  He added: “Employers should take care not to craft policies that disfavor individuals because of their sincerely held religious beliefs or practices in violation of Title VII.”

The suit alleges that allowing the mask accommodation for members of religious organizations who can obtain clergy letters, but denying the same accommodation to others with sincere religious beliefs, constitutes discrimination in violation of Title VII.  The suit also alleges that county failed to make  reasonable accommodation of the former nursing assistant’s religious practice.  Title VII requires employers to make a reasonable accommodation of employees’ religious observances and practices unless doing so would impose an “undue hardship” on the employer.

More information about enforcement of Title VII is available at the Employment Litigation Section homepage.


Indictment in Jewish Community Center Threats

On February 28, the Department of Justice announced the indictment of Michael Ron David Kadar for hate crimes and other offenses allegedly stemming from a series of incidents involving Jewish Community Centers and other institutions.  Kadar is 19 and holds dual United States and Israeli citizenship.

Kadar was indicted in United States District Courts in Florida, Georgia, and the District of Columbia on charges including threats to Jewish Community Centers, threats to the Israeli Embassy and the Anti-Defamation League, cyberstalking, and conveying false information to a police dispatch.

On the day the indictments were announced, Attorney General Jeff Sessions remarked: “When individuals target victims of their crimes based on who they are, what they believe, or how they worship, they target the bedrock principles on which our nation was founded.  These alleged threats of violence instilled fear in the Jewish community and other communities across the country, and it is the Justice Department’s duty to make sure all Americans can live their lives without this type of fear.”

After an investigation into threats made to individuals and organizations throughout the United States in 2016 and early 2017, the Department of Justice initially charged Kadar in criminal complaints on April 21, 2017, following his arrest in Israel.  Kadar remains in custody in Israel where he also faces charges.  The hate crime charges each carry a maximum penalty of 20 years imprisonment, the bomb threat charges each carry a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment, and the other charges each carry a maximum penalty of 5 years imprisonment.  An indictment is a formal accusation of criminal conduct, not evidence of guilt. The defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.

Additional information about the Civil Rights Division’s efforts to combat hate crimes is available at its Hate Crimes page.


Tampa, Florida Man Pleads Guilty to Threatening to Burn Down Home Being Purchased by Muslim Family

On February 27, the Justice Department announced that David H. Howard, 59, of Tampa, Florida, pleaded guilty in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida to one count of threatening, intimidating, and interfering with a Muslim family’s enjoyment of their housing rights, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 3631.  Howard had been charged in connection with an incident in November 2016 in which he threatened to burn down a house that a Muslim family had contracted to buy in the Davis Islands neighborhood of Tampa. 

According to court documents, a Muslim husband and wife were about to conduct the final walk-through of a home they had contracted to purchase when the defendant approached them and yelled: “This sale will not take place!”  He threatened to burn the house down, saying: “You are not welcome here!”  The couple cancelled the closing that was scheduled to take place the next day.

On the day the plea was announced, Acting Assistant Attorney General Gore remarked: “The Department of Justice will not tolerate illegal threats or acts of intimidation against any individual because of their religious beliefs.  The Civil Rights Division will continue to work tirelessly to prosecute hate crime offenders.”

A sentencing date has not yet been set.  Howard faces a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison, up to 3 years of supervised release, and a fine up to $250,000.

Additional information about the Civil Rights Division’s efforts to combat hate crimes is available at its Hate Crimes page.


Justice Department Releases Religious Liberty Section For U.S. Attorneys’ Manual

The Department of Justice on January 31 released an update of the United States Attorneys’ Manual (USAM) with a new section titled Respect for Religious Liberty.  The USAM is the principal reference guide for all Department of Justice attorneys outlining the policies and procedures the Department follows in enforcing both civil and criminal federal laws.

On October 6, 2017, the Attorney General issued a Memorandum for All Executive Departments and Agencies entitled Federal Law Protections for Religious Liberty. The guidance was accompanied by a memo directing Department of Justice components and United States Attorney’s Offices to use the religious liberty Memorandum in litigation, advice to the Executive Branch, operations, grants, and all other aspects of the Department’s work.

As part of the implementation of this memo, the Department added a section to the USAM, implementing a process for coordinating and evaluating matters implicating religious liberty.  The new USAM provisions require DOJ components to:

  • Immediately inform the Office of the Associate Attorney General upon receiving service of a suit filed against the United States raising any significant question concerning religious liberty;
  • Coordinate decisions about merits arguments and significant litigation strategy questions in religious liberty cases with the Office of the Associate Attorney General; and
  • Obtain the approval of the Office of the Associate Attorney General concerning any affirmative civil suit that impinges on rights under the Free Exercise Clause, Establishment Clause, or Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The updated USAM instructs relevant Justice Department components to consult the 20 religious liberty principles laid out in the Attorney General’s October 6 memo when considering whether the notice, coordination, or approval requirements are applicable.  To fully effectuate these requirements, the updated USAM requires all U.S. Attorney’s Offices and DOJ litigating divisions to designate a point of contact to lead these efforts.

Updated March 23, 2018