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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.



Louisiana Man Charged with Federal Hate Crimes for Setting Fire to Three Churches

On June 12, the Department of Justice announced the unsealing of the indictment of a Louisiana man for setting fire to and destroying three churches in St. Landry Parish.

According to the six-count indictment, in a span of 10 days in late March to early April this year, Holden James Matthews, 21, of Opelousas intentionally set fire to St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre and Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas. Matthews is charged with three counts of intentional damage to religious property in violation of the Church Arson Prevention Act, 18 U.S.C. § 247, and with three counts of using fire to commit a felony.

“Federal law protects our freedom to practice religion in a safe environment without the threat of discrimination or violence,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband the day the indictment was announced. “Any alleged violation of federal civil rights laws are taken extremely seriously by the Justice Department and will be prosecuted.”

If convicted, Matthews faces a maximum term of imprisonment of 20 years per count of intentional damage to religious property. Matthews faces an additional mandatory minimum of 10 years for the first count of using fire to commit a felony and 20 years for the subsequent counts. An indictment is merely an accusation and a defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

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


Place to Worship Initiative Looks Back at First Year

On June 13, the Department of Justice marked the one-year anniversary of its Place to Worship Initiative, which focuses on protecting the rights of religious individuals and communities to build, expand, buy, or rent houses of worship and other religious facilities as guaranteed by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

“The Department of Justice has prioritized protecting religious freedom, and the successes we have achieved under the Place to Worship Initiative in just one year demonstrate the strength of that commitment,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband noted on the anniversary. “The Civil Rights Division will continue to enforce vigorously the laws that defend the fundamental freedom of religion, and we are pleased that this initiative has allowed the Department to continue this important work on behalf of many different and diverse religious groups.”

Since launching the initiative last June, the Civil Rights Division has doubled the number of RLUIPA investigations to 15, compared to the average of seven investigations per year from 2010 – 2016. A majority of investigations result in a resolution, or settlement, without a lawsuit.  Since the initiative began, the Justice Department has resolved 10 RLUIPA investigations.

Moreover, since the start of the initiative, the Department filed a lawsuit against the Borough of Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, alleging that the borough violated RLUIPA when its zoning board denied zoning approval to allow the Valley Chabad, an Orthodox Jewish congregation, to build a new place of worship on its land. The Department also filed suit against and reached an agreement with the City of Farmersville, Texas, to resolve allegations that the city violated RLUIPA when it denied an application by the Islamic Association of Collin County to build a cemetery.

Since the initiative began, the Department has also actively participated in RLUIPA lawsuits filed by private parties around the country. The Department has filed four Statements of Interest supporting RLUIPA plaintiffs in federal district courts, including Hope Lutheran Church v. City of St. Ignace, Christian Fellowship Centers of New York, Inc. v. Village of Canton, Ramapough Mountain Indians, Inc. v. Township of Mahwah, and Jagannath Organization for Global Awareness v. Howard County.  These cases have involved such diverse issues as the ability of churches in New York and Michigan to locate in business districts, the right of Ramapough Mountain Indians to use land for religious assembly in New Jersey, and the right of a Hindu congregation to build a temple in Maryland. The Department also filed an amicus brief and presented oral argument in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit supporting an Evangelical church’s RLUIPA claim against Baltimore County, Maryland. The Fourth Circuit ultimately agreed with the Department’s position that the small congregation, many of whose members are African immigrants, could proceed with its claim that the county improperly denied approval to build a small church on a 1.2-acre lot.

As part of the Place to Worship Initiative, the Department has launched a new website and complaint portal, provided informational materials for religious leaders and municipal officials, and held 15 community outreach and training events to raise awareness about RLUIPA across the country.


Department of Justice Files Statement of Interest in Maine School Choice Case

On June 10, the Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine supporting current and prospective religious high school students who claim that the State unconstitutionally barred them from a program paying public or private school tuition for students who do not have public schools in their school districts. The United States argues that excluding students from the program who wish to use the tuition to attend private religious schools that otherwise satisfy State education requirements discriminates against them in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The case, Carson v. Makin, was brought by students and their parents challenging their exclusion from the Maine tuition program. In Maine, 143 of the State’s 260 school districts do not operate their own high schools. Such school districts may arrange for another school to teach all of their students, or these school districts may provide tuition payments to allow families to go to the public school or private school of their choice. The State, however, forbids students in the tuition program to attend “sectarian” schools.

“Under the Constitution, governments may not exclude students from education programs solely because of their religious status or their religious choices,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband said the day the United States filed the Statement of Interest. “The Department of Justice is committed to ensuring that all children and their families may participate in benefit programs without discrimination based on their faith.”

The Statement of Interest emphasizes that excluding otherwise eligible students from the program because they attend religious schools violates the First Amendment, as recently explained by the Supreme Court two years ago in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer. In Trinity Lutheran, 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, the brief argues, Maine cannot show here. Preferring secular private schools that meet the academic requirements set forth in Maine law to religious schools that meet those same requirements, the United States’ brief concludes, cannot be reconciled with the Supreme Court’s decision in Trinity Lutheran.

Today’s filing 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 Guidance states that “government may not target persons or individuals because of their religion” and observes 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 Department of Justice’s 2017 Religious Liberty Guidance.


Chelan County, Washington Amends Zoning Code to Treat Places of Worship and Secular Assemblies Equally

On May 29, the Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Washington closed their investigation of Chelan County, Washington, under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), after the county amended its zoning code to treat places of worship equally with nonreligious assemblies. In November 2018, the Department opened an investigation of the county’s treatment of churches and other places of worship in its zoning code, after learning that the county had refused to allow a landowner to apply for a conditional use permit to build a small chapel on her property, when secular assemblies are allowed with a conditional use permit in the same zoning district. 

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 county began the process of amending its zoning code to equalize the treatment of places of worship and nonreligious assemblies and, on April 23, 2019, signed those changes into law. In response to the zoning code changes, the Department closed its investigation.

More information is available on the Place to Worship Initiative homepage 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.


Oregon Man Sentenced to 15 Months in Federal Prison for Threats to Eugene Church

On May 23, Benjamin Jaramillo Hernandez, 70, of Eugene, Oregon, was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison and three years’ supervised release for threats to St. Mary Catholic Church in Eugene in September 2018. He pleaded guilty to violating the Church Arson Prevention Act, 18 U.S.C. § 247, and illegally possessing ammunition. The Church Arson Prevention Act protects against the arson or vandalism of places of worship, or violence or threats of violence that interfere with religious exercise.

 “Threats of violence and hateful intimidation will not be tolerated by the Department of Justice,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband said on the date of the sentencing. “As demonstrated by this case, the Civil Rights Division will vigorously prosecute those who violate the right of individuals or entire communities to freely exercise their religious beliefs.”

According to court documents, on September 9, 2018, Hernandez was escorted from St. Mary property following an angry outburst during the sacrament of communion. Five days later, on September 14, a church employee reported to the Eugene Police Department that someone had dispensed pepper spray on the exterior door handles and through the mail slot of the St. Mary office front door. Employees reported burning sensations in their fingers and respiratory distress. A Eugene police officer and FBI agent identified Hernandez in church surveillance footage as the person responsible for both incidents.

On September 16, 2018, Hernandez was again spotted near St. Mary. A witness saw Hernandez across the street from the church when he stopped near the Eugene Public Library and shouted at the witness, “I’ve got something for you right here,” while pointing to a bag he was carrying.

A few days later, on September 20, St. Mary employees reported finding a threatening note and seven 10mm Sig hollow point bullets left in the office. The note threatened the church with “2 MP5s w/ 50 rounds each,” a type of submachine gun. The note concluded: “Eugene is going on the [expletive] map.”

A Eugene police officer again reviewed church surveillance footage and identified Hernandez as the individual who dropped off the note and bullets. On September 21, 2018, Eugene Police arrested Hernandez at the Eugene Public Library. During a search of Hernandez’s person, officers located a partially empty can of pepper spray, three .410 shotgun shells, and thirteen 10mm Sig hollow point bullets. The 10mm bullets were the same brand and caliber as the bullets left at St. Mary with the threatening note.

On Feb. 12, 2019, Hernandez pleaded guilty to a two-count Information charging him with obstruction or attempted obstruction of persons in the free exercise of their religious beliefs and unlawful possession of ammunition.

St. Mary Catholic Church staff and parishioners have reported that Hernandez’s threats have left staff and churchgoers concerned about their safety and that the church has experienced a drop in attendance and in weekly collections.

More information about the Civil Rights Division’s hate crime prosecutions is available at


Court Allows Church’s RLUIPA Equal Terms Case To Move Forward

On May 22, 2019, a federal judge in Michigan ruled that Hope Lutheran Church in St. Ignace, Michigan may move forward with its claim that the city has treated it less favorably than nonreligious assemblies and institutions in violation of RLUIPA. The court held that the church had pled facts sufficient to maintain a claim that the City had violated the “equal terms” provision of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA).

The case, Hope Lutheran Church v. City of St. Ignace, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, involves a church that purchased property in the City’s downtown General Business District (GBD) to hold worship and Bible studies.  In its Complaint, Hope alleged that the City barred it from operating in the GBD, even though the City permits other similarly situated secular assembly uses to operate in the district, including municipal buildings, assembly halls, and theaters. After the City denied the church’s request for tax-exempt status and zoning approval, the church sued, alleging that the City violated RLUIPA’s equal terms provision (see Washington article above) for more information on this section of RLUIPA).

On March 19, 2019, the United States filed a Statement of Interest opposing the City’s motion to dismiss the church’s claim of unequal treatment. The United States argued that the church’s allegations state a claim under RLUIPA’s equal terms provision, and that the City’s justifications for barring churches from the GBD, 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. 

The federal court agreed with the church and the United States. The Court denied the City’s motion to dismiss, holding that that revenue maximization and concerns regarding liquor licensing are not compelling reasons to justify unequal treatment because there is nothing in the City’s land use regulations that addresses revenue maximization or concerns over liquor licensing in the GBD.

More information about RLUIPA is available on the Place to Worship Initiative homepage 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.

Updated June 7, 2023