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.



Federal Court Adopts DOJ’s Analysis, Allows Church’s RLUIPA Claim to Proceed to Trial

On August 30, a U.S. District Court in Kansas ruled that a Roman Catholic church had presented sufficient evidence to proceed to trial on its claim that the City of Mission Woods violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), when it denied the church a permit to expand.  The court adopted the two-step analysis for analyzing the substantial burden claim urged by the United States in a Statement of Interest filed with the court on May 24.

RLUIPA, enacted in 2000, protects places of worship and other religious uses of land from discriminatory or unduly burdensome application of land-user regulations.  On June 13, the Attorney General announced the Place to Worship Initiative, focused on expanding the Department’s RLUIPA enforcement efforts and increasing awareness of RLUIPA through community education outreach events around the country and dissemination of educational materials.  More information about the initiative is available on the initiative homepage.  Recent RLUIPA cases include the filing of a suit against a New Jersey town alleging that it interfered with the ability of an Orthodox Jewish group to build a synagogue, a brief supporting a Hindu association’s suit against Howard County, Maryland (see article below), and a brief supporting an African Christian church’s suit against Baltimore County, Maryland.

The Mission Woods, Kansas, case involves the efforts of Rose Philippine Duchesne Catholic Church to convert a dilapidated house next to its church building for youth and adult education and meetings.  The property is in a zone that permits houses of worship as-of-right, subject to development standards such as density, parking, and landscaping and screening requirements. While the church presented evidence that it complied with all requirements, the city denied the permit, citing concerns about noise and traffic.  St. Rose filed suit under RLUIPA.

The United States’ Statement of Interest contended that a court analyzing a substantial burden claim should first look at whether there is an “actual, practical impact . . . on the institution’s religious exercise,” and if so, then determine whether that burden was caused by the Defendant, such as whether “the institution had a reasonable expectation of obtaining the approval, whether there are reasonable alternatives available to the institution, and whether pursuing alternatives would cause undue delay, uncertainty, and expense for the institution.”

The court agreed, holding that to establish that a land use regulation has imposed a substantial burden under RLUIPA, a plaintiff must show first that it has “a need to expand or relocate.”  Then, a plaintiff must show that the defendant inhibited the plaintiff’s ability to expand or relocate by such actions as denying plaintiff’s “reasonable expectation” of building or expanding at that location, that there are no reasonable alternatives, that the defendant imposed “economically infeasible or disingenuous” conditions, or that the defendant’s actions had created “delay, uncertainty or expense” for the ability of the plaintiff to relocate or expand.

The court held that the plaintiff had presented sufficient evidence of both a need to expand and that their attempts to do so were thwarted by the actions of the defendant.  The court also held that the church had presented sufficient evidence that the defendant did not have a compelling reason for its actions.  It thus denied summary judgment to the defendant and allowed the substantial burden claim to proceed.  The court also allowed the church’s claim that it was treated less favorably than nonreligious assemblies under RLUIPA Section 2(b)(1) to proceed, along with other federal and state law claims, and granted judgment for the Defendant on a RLUIPA Section 2(b)(3) claim that the city had imposed a unreasonable limitation on building churches in the city as a general matter.  The United States’ brief addressed only the substantial burden issue.   


Attorney General Announces Creation of Religious Liberty Task Force at DOJ Summit

In his remarks at the Department of Justice Religious Liberty Summit on July 30, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the formation of a Religious Liberty Task Force to ensure that the Department fully implements the Attorney General’s Memorandum on Federal Law Protections for Religious Liberty in all of its cases and its operations.  The task force is chaired by acting Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio and Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Policy Beth Williams, and composed of representatives from multiple Department of Justice components.

The Attorney General issued the Memorandum on Federal Law Protections for Religious Liberty, and a companion memorandum on its implementation, in October 2017 at the direction of the President in Executive Order 13798.  The Memorandum lays out twenty principles for the Executive Branch to follow, covering issues including equal treatment of religious individuals and groups, protection of conscience, accommodation of religious practices in the public square, honoring the autonomy of religious organizations, and implementation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).  As the Attorney General summarized the Memorandum in his remarks at the summit:  “In short, we have not only the freedom to worship—but the right to exercise our faith.  The Constitution’s protections don’t end at the parish parking lot nor can our freedoms be confined to our basements.”

The summit also featured remarks by Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville and Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma, remarks by several DOJ officials, and panels featuring legal experts and individuals impacted by religious liberty.  Videos of the summit, in four parts, are available here.


Department Closes Investigation in Response to Florida City Equalizing Treatment of Religious and Nonreligious Land Uses

On July 25, the Civil Rights Division closed its investigation of the City of Lauderdale Lakes, Florida, under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), after the city changed its zoning code to treat places of worship equally with nonreligious assemblies.  The Department opened an investigation in November 2016 of the city’s treatment of churches and other places of worship in its zoning code.  The zoning code prohibited places of worship in all business districts other than the Community Facility district, while permitting various nonreligious assemblies, such as banquet halls, dance academies, and funeral homes, as of right in many business districts where places of worship were excluded.

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).

After the Department opened its investigation, the city initiated efforts to amend its zoning laws regarding places of worship and ultimately amended its ordinance to equalize treatment of houses of worship and nonreligious assemblies.  In response to the ordinance changes, the Department closed its investigation.

More information about RLUIPA is available at


DOJ Files Statement of Interest Supporting Hindu Association’s RLUIPA Suit

On July 23, the Justice Department filed a Statement of Interest contending that a Hindu association seeking to build a temple in Howard County, Maryland, had adequately alleged a violation of RLUIPA and that a federal court should permit its lawsuit to proceed.

The suit was brought by the Jagannath Organization for Global Awareness, a Hindu congregation seeking to build a temple on land it purchased in Howard County, after the county denied its zoning application.  There is currently no temple for this branch of Hinduism in the state of Maryland and the congregation has been without a permanent place of worship for sixteen years.

The United States’ brief, much like the brief in the Mission Woods case (see article above), focuses on RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision, which states that zoning actions that impose a “substantial burden” on religious exercise must be justified by a compelling governmental interest pursued through the least restrictive means. 

The United States’ brief, as in Mission Woods, contends that evaluating substantial burden involves a two-step process: first, looking at the practical effect of the denial on the group’s ability to worship, and second, examining the surrounding facts to determine the degree to which the defendants’ actions have imposed a substantial burden on the religious exercise of the group.   Here, the United States notes that the Jagannath organization has sufficiently alleged its need for a place of worship in the county.  Second, the United States contends that the Jagannath organization has adequately alleged that this denial constitutes a substantial burden imposed by the county:  that the county has completely denied its application, rather than limiting it or imposing conditions; that the congregation has been burdened by a four-year property search and two years of administrative hearings, creating “expense, delay and uncertainty” on its prospects of finding a place of worship; and that based on the county’s regulations and past practice, the congregation had a reasonable expectation of being able to build on its property when it purchased it.  The United States’ brief thus contends that the congregation has properly alleged that the county has imposed a “substantial burden” on its religious exercise, and therefore the case should be permitted to proceed.


Town Allows Land Sale to Church, Amends Ordinance, After DOJ Investigation

On July 11, the Justice Department closed its investigation of the Town of Houlton, Maine, under RLUIPA, after the town amended its zoning ordinance to treat places of worship equally with comparable nonreligious uses.  The Department opened the investigation after the town denied a landowner’s request to change its ordinance so that he could sell his property to a local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints group for use as a church.

The property that the church sought was located in the town’s Residential Business District.  At the time, the Residential Business District permitted various nonreligious assemblies, including amusement arcades, day cares, schools, and theaters as conditional uses.  Churches and other places of worship, however, were not allowed at all.  The landowner submitted an application to the town requesting that it change its ordinance to permit places of worship to operate in the district, but the town denied the request.

In May 2018, the Department opened an investigation of the town and its treatment of religious uses compared to nonreligious uses.  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.”  

On June 10, the Town Council finalized an ordinance that made several changes to the town’s zoning laws.  Among other things, the ordinance amended the land use matrix so that religious assemblies are now permitted to operate in the Residential Business District, as well as in other zoning districts where religious assembly uses had been treated less favorably than comparable nonreligious assembly uses.  In response to the ordinance changes, the Department closed its investigation.

More information about RLUIPA is available at


Update on Religious Hate Crimes

The Department of Justice enforces a range of criminal laws protecting against religion-based hate crimes.  Various federal hate crime laws include religion among the protected classifications, and laws like the Church Arson Prevention Act specifically protect against arson or vandalism of places of worship, or violence or threats of violence that interfere with religious exercise.

As the Attorney General said in June in a speech to the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations: “Religious freedom means not only freedom from government intrusion, but also freedom from violence.  The first civil right is the right to be safe.”

Below are updates on recent DOJ prosecutions of religious hate crimes:

  • On August 7, a federal judge in Kansas sentenced Adam W. Purinton of Olathe, Kansas to life in prison without parole on federal charges for the February 2017 killing of a man from India, and the shooting of two others, in a bar in Olathe.  On the day of the sentencing, Attorney General Sessions stated:  “The crimes at issue in this case are detestable.  The defendant acted with clear premeditation in murdering one man, and attempting to murder a second man, simply because of their race, religion, and national origin. As a result, a promising young life has been tragically cut short, and other lives have been filled with suffering.”  More information is available here.
  • On July 24, Preston Q. Howard of Wright City, Missouri, was sentenced to two years in prison for violating 18 U.S.C. § 247 by making numerous telephone threats to the Islamic Society of Augusta, threatening to “hunt down” Muslims and blow up the mosque.  On the day of the sentencing, Acting Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Division John Gore stated:  “Threats of violence based on religious beliefs have no place in our country.  The Civil Rights Division will continue to work tirelessly to prosecute hate crime offenders.”  More information is available here.
  • On July 16, a federal jury in Texas, found Marq Vincent Perez of Victoria, Texas guilty of various federal charges relating to the burning of the Victoria Islamic Center on January 28, 2017.  On the day the jury returned the verdict, Acting Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Division John Gore stressed: “All people are entitled to live free from violence and fear, regardless of their religion or place of worship.”  Sentencing is set for October 2.  Perez faces up to 30 years in prison.  More information is available here.

More information about the Civil Rights Division’s enforcement of laws against hate crimes is available on the Division’s hate crimes page.


Updated September 6, 2018

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