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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.



California Man Charged With Federal Hate Crimes for Poway Synagogue Shooting, Mosque Arson

On May 9, the Department of Justice charged a California man with federal hate crimes, including the murder of one person and the attempted murder of 53 others, for his actions during the April 27 shooting at the Chabad of Poway Synagogue in California. The 109-count indictment against John T. Earnest, 19, of Rancho Peñasquitos, California, also included a charge for the arson of a mosque in March. 

According to the affidavit in support of the criminal complaint, on April 27, Earnest drove to the Chabad of Poway Synagogue and fired a semi-automatic rifle at members of the congregation celebrating Shabat and the last day of Passover, killing one person and injuring three others.  The affidavit also alleges that, on March 24, Earnest poured gasoline on the Escondido Mosque and set it on fire, causing damage to the exterior of the building.  More details about the allegations are available here.

On the day the complaint was filed, Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division, stated: “No one in this country should be subjected to violence, injury, or death for who they are or for their religious beliefs.  The Department will vigorously prosecute those who commit hate crimes and acts of domestic terrorism, and we will continue to work with our state and local partners to bring to justice anyone who violates the civil rights of Americans.”

Earnest faces a maximum possible penalty of death or life without parole.  He is currently in state custody pending state criminal charges.  The complaint and all charges are merely allegations, and the defendant is presumed innocent unless proven guilty in a court of law.

For more information about the Department of Justice’s work to combat and prevent hate crimes, visit, a one-stop portal providing hate crime resources for law enforcement, media, researchers, victims, advocacy groups, and other organizations and individuals.


Vermont Improperly Barred Parochial Students From College Course Program, United States Brief Argues

The Department of Justice on May 9 filed a Statement of Interest in the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont supporting parochial students who were barred from a state program that pays tuition for high school students to take up to two college courses.  The Statement of Interest argues that exclusion of the students from the program constitutes discrimination in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

In the case, A.M. v. French, students who attend religious schools and their parents challenge their exclusion from Vermont’s “Dual Enrollment Program.”  This initiative provides Vermont high school students the opportunity to take up to two college courses while still in high school, with tuition paid by the State.  It is open to public school students, home school students, and students attending nonreligious private schools who do not have a public high school in their school district.  The program, however, excludes those students without a public high school in their district who choose to attend private religious schools.

The United States’ Statement of Interest emphasizes that including parochial school students in the Dual Enrollment Program would provide them with the same secular educational benefit—tuition at various local colleges—offered to other students.  Excluding students from this secular benefit because they have chosen religious, rather than nonreligious, private schools is impermissible.  The United States notes that two years ago, in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, the Supreme Court held that “denying a generally available benefit solely on account of religious identity imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion,” and may only be justified by the most compelling governmental interests, which Vermont has not shown.

On the day the brief was filed, Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband stated:  “The Constitution’s First Amendment makes clear that students may not be excluded from education programs like the Dual Enrollment Program because of their religious status or their religious choices.  The Department of Justice is committed to ensuring that all persons may participate in benefit programs without discrimination based on their faith.”

The Statement of Interest addresses issues set forth in the Department of Justice’s Guidance on Federal Law Protections for Religious Liberty, issued on October 6, 2017, at the direction of President Trump’s May 4, 2017, Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty. The Department of Justice’s Guidance states “government may not target persons or individuals because of their religion” and affirms that “constitutional protections for religious liberty are not conditioned upon the willingness of a religious person or organization to remain separate from civil society . . . .  Individuals do not give up their religious-liberty protections by providing or receiving social services, education, or healthcare.”

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.


Pryor Creek, Oklahoma Amends Zoning Code to Equalize Treatment of Places of Worship

On April 30, the Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Oklahoma closed their investigation of the City of Pryor Creek, Oklahoma, under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), after the City amended its zoning code to treat places of worship equally with nonreligious assemblies.  In July 2017, the Department opened an investigation of the City’s treatment of churches and other places of worship in its zoning code, after learning that the City had denied a special use permit to a church and ordered it to vacate its location in a commercial zoning district.

The City’s zoning code required places of worship to obtain special use permits to locate in commercial zoning districts but allowed numerous nonreligious assemblies, such as fraternal organizations, lodge halls, museums, theaters, public auditoriums, restaurants, childcare centers, schools, and private recreation centers, in the zone as of right.  The City denied a permit to the Cornerstone Truth of God Church—a small, storefront church that holds services and Bible study three days a week—and ordered the church to vacate the premises within 90 days. 

RLUIPA protects places of worship and other religious uses of property from discriminatory or unduly burdensome zoning or landmarking regulations.  Section 2(b)(1) of RLUIPA states that “[n]o 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 granted the church a special use permit, rescinded its order to vacate, and initiated efforts to amend its zoning code’s treatment of places of worship.  In March 2019, the City revised its code to permit places of worship in several commercial zoning districts and to equalize the treatment of places of worship and nonreligious assemblies.  In response to the zoning code changes, the Department closed its investigation.

In 2018, the Department launched the Place to Worship Initiative to increase awareness of RLUIPA’s requirements among local officials and communities and to improve enforcement.  More information is available on the Initiative homepage and the RLUIPA page of the DOJ Civil Rights Division’s Housing and Civil Enforcement Section, which enforces RLUIPA. 


Office of Personnel Management Finalizes Religious Comp Time Rule

Under a 1978 law, federal agencies permit federal workers to offset absences for religious holidays and observances by allowing them to make up the time by working hours outside their normal schedule.  For over forty years, implementing regulations provided only a skeletal framework for this religious “comp time” system.  On April 29, however, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) issued a final rule that clarifies and standardizes religious comp time across the federal government.

The final rule ensures that federal employees receive a full opportunity to earn and use religious comp time.  It allows employees approximately one year—thirteen pay periods before and thirteen pay periods after an observance—to schedule and earn comp time.  In addition, it clarifies that religious comp time is available to a broad range of federal employees and that there are no time limits for using accumulated religious comp time.  The rule also makes clear that employees may make requests based on personal religious beliefs and need not cite beliefs that are officially mandated by a religious organization.

On the day the rule was announced, Attorney General William P. Barr remarked: “The federal government has been strengthened and enriched by the service of people of faith from the very beginning.  American history has shown time and again that religious faith can promote good citizenship and the qualities that make for good government service.  By offering more flexibility in employees’ work schedules, today’s new rule treats Americans of faith with respect and recognizes that government can make legitimate accommodations while still serving the public.  I applaud this effort to make the federal government a more tolerant and welcoming work environment, and I am confident that it will yield positive results for years to come.”


Settlement Reached in Islamic Cemetery Dispute

On April 16, the Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Texas announced an agreement with the City of Farmersville, Texas, resolving allegations that the City violated RLUIPA when it denied an application by the Islamic Association of Collin County in July 2017 to build a cemetery.

The settlement resolved a lawsuit the United States filed the same day in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas.  In September 2017, after the City denied the Islamic Association’s application to build a religious cemetery, the United States opened an investigation of the City’s actions.  The United States concluded that the City had violated RLUIPA and sent notice of its intent to file suit in August 2018, offering the City an opportunity to negotiate a resolution.  In September 2018, the City and the Islamic Association entered into a separate agreement allowing for the approval of the cemetery and, in December 2018, the City approved the Islamic Association’s application to develop the land as a cemetery.

The United States’ complaint alleged that the City’s denial of the Islamic Association’s application to develop the property as a cemetery imposed a substantial burden on the Islamic Association’s religious exercise and discriminated against the Islamic Association on the basis of religion.  The City denied the allegations.  As part of the agreement, the City has agreed to provide training to its officials and employees about their obligations under RLUIPA and to notify the public about the City’s compliance with RLUIPA in its zoning and land use actions.    

More information about RLUIPA is available on the DOJ’s Place to Worship Initiative homepage and the RLUIPA page of the DOJ Civil Rights Division’s Housing and Civil Enforcement Section. 



Updated May 20, 2019