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:
- Court Orders Village to Allow Church to Meet in Commercial District
- Justice Department Files Statement of Interest Supporting Native American Land Use Case
- Justice Department Files Statement of Interest in Michigan Church Zoning Case
- Court Dismisses Claim After Town Civic Center Guarantees Churches Equal Access
- Wisconsin Man Sentenced for Threatening Jewish Community Center
On March 29, a federal judge in New York ruled that the Village of Canton must allow the Canton Christian Fellowship Center to begin holding worship services at a property the church purchased in the Village’s commercial district. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York held that the church had shown a likelihood of success in its challenge under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) that the Village had treated it less favorably than nonreligious assemblies and institutions. The court also found that the church would be irreparably harmed if not allowed to begin using the property for Sunday worship on March 31 since it had nowhere else to go, and held that issuing an emergency “preliminary injunction” was in the public interest.
The case, Christian Fellowship Centers of New York, Inc. v. Village of Canton, involves a congregation that purchased a building in the Village’s commercial zoning district that had previously been used as a “gentleman’s club” to use as a church. After the Village denied zoning approval, the church sued, alleging that the Village violated RLUIPA by excluding it while allowing various nonreligious assemblies in the same district.
On March 26, the Justice Department filed a Statement of Interest supporting the church’s request for a preliminary injunction. The United States argued that the church had shown a likelihood that it would succeed on its claim that the Village violated RLUIPA’s “equal terms” provision because there is no basis on which to exclude places of worship while allowing fraternal organizations, theaters, social clubs, and other nonreligious assemblies.
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).
The federal court agreed with the church and the United States. The court held that since the Village’s commercial zone “permits property owners to host meetings for nearly every purpose - business, governmental, ‘educational,’ ‘fraternal,’ ‘social club,’ ‘charitable,’ or ‘philanthropic,’-except for religious purposes,” the Village has likely violated RLUIPA by excluding the church. The court likewise held that a state law meant to protect churches from the purported offensiveness of being near liquor-serving establishments could not be used as a reason to exclude the church when the church simply wants to be treated the same as other assemblies in the zone as required by federal law.
On the day the Statement of Interest was filed, Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division said: “Federal law protects the ability of religious groups of all faiths to locate and grow their worship sites in communities across the country.” He added: “It includes a requirement that religious assemblies be treated equally with nonreligious assemblies. The Department of Justice is committed to enforcing this and other federal protections for religious freedom.”
Grant C. Jaquith, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of New York, stated: “The right to the free exercise of religion includes the freedom to assemble in a house of worship. When faith communities face discrimination through zoning or land use regulation, we will use the full force of federal law to ensure that this fundamental right is not unlawfully infringed.”
Last year, the Justice Department announced its Place to Worship Initiative, which focusses on RLUIPA’s provisions that protect the rights of religious institutions to worship on their land. More information is available at www.justice.gov/crt/placetoworship and at the Civil Rights Division’s Housing and Civil Enforcement Section RLUIPA page. If you believe your RLUIPA rights have been violated, you may file a complaint on the DOJ RLUIPA complaint portal.
On March 18, the Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest in U.S. District Court in New Jersey supporting a lawsuit by the Ramapough Mountain Indians that the Township of Mahwah violated the tribe’s rights under RLUIPA by interfering with religious assembly on property the tribe owns in the Township.
In the suit, Ramapough Mountain Indians, Inc. v. Township of Mahwah, filed last May, the Ramapough allege that the Township substantially burdened their religious exercise by rescinding a zoning permit that authorized religious worship; limiting the number of people permitted on the property for religious gatherings; demanding the removal of structures central to the Ramapough’s worship including a sweat lodge, a prayer circle, and an altar; issuing large fines; and initiating civil and criminal enforcement proceedings. The tribe also alleges that the Township treated it differently from other similarly situated nonreligious groups in violation of RLUIPA’s “equal terms” provision (see prior article for details on this provision).
In September 2018, the Ramapough sought to amend their complaint. The United States’ Statement of Interest argues that the amended complaint properly states claims under RLUIPA. The United States contends that the Township has imposed a substantial burden on the Rampough’s religious exercise without adequate justification, and has not treated its use of the land equally with nonreligious uses of land.
On the day the Statement of Interest was filed, Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Right Division stated: “RLUIPA is an important law protecting the religious exercise of people of all faiths. The Department of Justice is committed to ensuring that this law and other laws protecting religious freedom are fully and properly applied.”
New Jersey U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito similarly remarked: “RLUIPA protects the rights of all religious communities to worship on their land free from discriminatory barriers and unlawful burdens. Our office will continue to vigorously enforce the rights guaranteed by RLUIPA and take steps to ensure that it is applied correctly in our District.”
On March 19, the Justice Department filed a Statement of Interest in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan supporting a church’s claims that the City of St. Ignace, Michigan, violated its rights under RLUIPA by barring it from locating a church and coffee shop in the City’s downtown zoning district.
The case, Hope Lutheran Church v. City of St. Ignace, involves a congregation that purchased property in the City’s downtown General Business District to locate a church that would include outreach activities, including a nonprofit coffee shop and community Bible studies. Prior to purchasing the property, the church was renting space in a hotel and had spent several years looking for a permanent location.
After the City denied Hope Lutheran approval to open a church at the property, the church filed a lawsuit, alleging that the City violated RLUIPA’s “equal terms” provision by barring it from operating in the business district while allowing similarly situated secular assemblies including municipal buildings, assembly halls, and theaters.
The United States’ Statement of Interest argues that Hope Lutheran Church has properly stated a claim under RLUIPA’s “equal terms” provision, and that the City’s justifications for barring churches from the business district, such as tax generation and the impact of Michigan’s law limiting the distance between churches and liquor-serving establishments, are not valid bases under RLUIPA to treat churches less favorably than similarly situated secular assemblies.
“Religious groups in America have the fundamental constitutional right to use land for religious exercise, free from discriminatory restrictions, and to be treated on equal terms with nonreligious groups,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division. “The Department of Justice will continue to enforce federal civil rights laws protecting religious freedom so that communities across the country can establish and grow their places of worship.”
Andrew B. Birge, United States Attorney for the Western District of Michigan, stated: “My office is pleased to take action to help protect these fundamental rights and to ensure that local zoning actions and ordinances that violate the law by failing to treat individuals and religious institutions on equal terms with nonreligious assemblies or institutions will not stand.”
On March 18, a federal court held that a church’s injunction request was no longer necessary after the Town of Edisto Beach agreed to allow churches and other religious organizations to rent space at its civic center on equal terms with other community organizations. On November 20, the Department of Justice had filed a Statement of Interest in U.S. District Court in South Carolina supporting the church’s claim that the Town of Edisto Beach violated its rights under the First Amendment when the town barred it from renting space at the Town’s Civic Center for worship.
The case, Redeemer Fellowship of Edisto Island v. Town of Edisto Beach, involves a small Christian congregation that sought to rent space for Sunday worship in the Civic Center, which is available for rental by community groups to hold events and activities. The Town responded by enacting a policy barring worship services at the Civic Center, citing separation of church and state concerns. As a result, the church filed a First Amendment lawsuit and sought a preliminary injunction to allow it to rent space at the facility.
The United States had argued that allowing equal access to all groups, including the church, is required by the First Amendment. Allowing equal access, the United States argued, ensures the government neutrality toward religious expression that the Constitution requires. The Statement of Interest concluded: “[T]he Town gets it exactly backwards: it seeks to permit the content and viewpoint discrimination against religious worship that the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses prohibit and to prohibit the equal access to the Civic Center that the Establishment Clause permits.”
On December 14, the town notified the court that it had rescinded the policy barring worship services at the Civic Center. In response, the Court dismissed the church’s claim for an injunction, but will permit its claim for monetary damages to go forward.
In July 2018, the Department of Justice announced the formation of the Religious Liberty Task Force. The Task Force brings together Department components to coordinate their work on religious liberty litigation and policy, and to implement the Attorney General’s 2017 Religious Liberty Guidance.
On March 1, a Wisconsin man was sentenced to 36 months in prison for charges related to threatening letters he wrote on three separate dates in May 2018 to the Harry and Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin. Chadwick Grubbs, 33, had pleaded guilty in November 2018 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin to two counts of mailing threatening communications and one count of threatening to injure and destroy property by fire and an explosive device.
On the day of the sentencing, Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband stated: “All people have the right to practice their religious beliefs without fear of threats or violence. Mr. Grubbs’ anti-Semitic actions have no place in our society today and the Department of Justice will continue to prosecute anyone who threatens to harm a community because of their faith.”
Information presented during the plea hearing established that Grubbs sent three letters to the JCC in which he threatened to use firearms to cause “maximum carnage” and explosives to destroy the JCC. Grubbs used numbers and symbols associated with white supremacist ideology in the letters.
For more information about the Department of Justice’s work to combat and prevent hate crimes, visit www.justice.gov/hatecrimes: a one-stop portal with links to hate crimes resources for law enforcement, media, researchers, victims, advocacy groups, and other organizations and individuals.