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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.



United States Files Brief Supporting Muslim Prisoner’s Religious Liberty Claim

On March 16, the Civil Rights Division filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, supporting a Muslim inmate’s request for a religious accommodation to the Georgia Department of Corrections’ beard-length regulations. The United States’ brief in the case, Smith v. Dozier, supports the conclusion of the federal district court below that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) requires, under the facts of this case, that Georgia permit a beard up to 3 inches in length. 

RLUIPA protects religious liberty in two separate areas: the rights of religious communities to use land for religious purposes like locating places of worship, and the right of persons confined to institutions, like prisoners, to exercise religion consistent with the unique circumstances of confinement. Under RLUIPA’s institutionalized persons provision, if an inmate shows that a prison policy or practice imposes a “substantial burden” on his or her religious exercise, the prison must demonstrate that the imposition of the burden advances a “compelling governmental interest” and does so through the “least restrictive means.”

In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court in Holt v. Hobbs unanimously held that Arkansas’s prison grooming policy violated the RLUIPA rights of a Muslim inmate who sought to grow a half-inch beard for religious reasons. The Court rejected prison officials’ claim that they needed the ban for security reasons. While the Court recognized that courts should respect the expertise of prison officials, this does not, the Court held, mean they should be given “unquestioning deference.” Rather, the Court held, it is the officials’ burden, once an inmate has shown that a policy imposes a substantial burden on sincere religious exercise, to show that the prison’s interest is compelling and cannot be pursued in some less restrictive way. 

In the Georgia case, Smith v. Dozier, a prisoner sought to wear a beard longer than the one at issue in Holt v. Hobbs. The prison said that it could not allow this because of concerns about contraband, hygiene, and other safety and security factors. The federal trial court, while acknowledging these to be important interests, held that Georgia had failed to articulate why it could not accommodate a beard up to 3 inches in length, since the prisons already allow male prisoners to have 3-inch long hair and female prisoners to have hair of any length. The trial court also found that Georgia had not shown why its interests were distinct from the 37 states, as well as the District of Columbia and the federal Bureau of Prisons, that do not have beard-length restrictions and are able to meet needs of security and hygiene through other means.

In its brief to the appeals court, the United States explains that the trial court, following the Supreme Court’s decision in Holt, “gave proper weight to the practices of other jurisdictions,” and required Georgia to give “persuasive reasons why it cannot make similar accommodations.”  Since Georgia had not presented such reasons, the United States brief concludes that the trial court properly ordered that Georgia permit the plaintiff to wear a three-inch beard.

For additional information about the Civil Rights Division and its Special Litigation Section, please visit Those interested in finding out more about RLUIPA may visit The Department of Justice issued a Report on the Tenth Anniversary of RLUIPA in 2010, and an Update on RLUIPA Enforcement in 2016.


Department of Justice Files Statement of Interest Supporting Photographer’s Free Speech Claim

The Department of Justice on February 27 filed a Statement of Interest in federal court in Kentucky, explaining that a Louisville/Jefferson County Metro Government law, which requires a photographer to photograph same-sex weddings in violation of her religious objections, violates the U.S. Constitution. The United States’ brief explains that the photographer, Chelsey Nelson, is likely to succeed on her claim that requiring her to photograph weddings against her conscience constitutes government-compelled speech that violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.

The law at issue prohibits businesses from discriminating on various bases, including sexual orientation. Ms. Nelson brought suit against the Louisville/Jefferson County Metro Government and several of its officials, seeking a preliminary injunction preventing the application of this law to require her to photograph same-sex weddings. The case is Chelsey Nelson Photography v. Louisville/Jefferson County Metro Government, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky.

The United States’ brief explains that Ms. Nelson is likely to succeed on her Free Speech claim.  The Free Speech Clause prohibits the government from requiring people to engage in speech supporting or promoting someone else’s expressive event, such as a wedding ceremony. The brief observes that “[w]eddings are sacred rites in the religious realm and profoundly symbolic ceremonies in the secular one” and thus are plainly “expressive activities” under the Supreme Court’s Free Speech cases. Moreover, the brief explains, photography is an expressive art form, and wedding photography in particular seeks to celebrate and honor the union being photographed. Forcing a photographer, against her conscience, to express her support for a wedding that her faith opposes violates the Constitution.

On the day the brief was filed, Eric Dreiband, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, stated: “The First Amendment forbids the government from forcing someone to speak in a manner that violates individual conscience.” He added that “the U.S. Department of Justice will continue to protect the right of all persons to exercise their constitutional right to speech and expression.”

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.


United States Suit Alleges Nebraska Village Improperly Blocked Church

On February 20, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the Village of Walthill, Nebraska, alleging that the Village violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) by denying Light of the World Gospel Ministries, a non-denominational, multi-ethnic Christian congregation, a permit to construct a new church in the Village. The suit alleges that the Village imposed a substantial burden on the church’s religious exercise without adequate justification and treated the church worse than comparable nonreligious assemblies and institutions.

The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska, alleges that the Village denied Light of the World’s application for a special use permit to construct a church on the site of several dilapidated, vacant structures that it purchased across the street from its current location in the Village’s commercial district. The congregation has outgrown its current building, which also has become unsafe due to an adjacent building that is in disrepair. The suit alleges that the Village approved construction of nonreligious places of assembly in the commercial district, including a library and an education center. The complaint alleges that the Village’s denial of the permit violates Section 2(b) of RLUIPA, known as the “equal terms” provision, which requires religious assemblies to be treated at least as well as nonreligious assemblies. The suit also alleges that the Village’s actions imposed a substantial burden on the church’s religious exercise without sufficient justification in violation of RLUIPA Section 2(a) by denying it needed space for worship.

“Treating places of worship less favorably than nonreligious assemblies is unlawful discrimination against religious exercise,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division, on the day the suit was filed. “The Department of Justice is committed to ensuring that governments do not deny congregations their federally protected right to exercise their faith through construction of places of worship.”

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


Louisiana Man Pleads Guilty to Burning Three Baptist Churches

On February 10, a Louisiana man pleaded guilty to setting fire to three Baptist churches in violation of a federal civil rights law protecting places of worship from violence. Holden Matthews, 22, pleaded guilty to three counts of violating the Church Arson Prevention Act, 18 U.S.C. § 247(a)(1), as well as one count of using fire to commit a federal felony, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 844(h), before the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana. The fires, which Matthews set over a 10-day period in March and April of 2019, completely destroyed each of the church buildings. 

At the plea hearing, Matthews admitted that, between March 26 and April 4, 2019, he intentionally set fire to three Baptist churches with predominantly African-American congregations in the Opelousas, Louisiana area: St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre on March 26, 2019; the Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas on April 2, 2019; and the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas on April 4, 2019. Matthews admitted to setting the fires because of the religious character of these buildings, in an effort to raise his profile as a “Black Metal” musician by copying similar crimes committed in Norway in the 1990s. Matthews further admitted that, after setting the third fire, he posted photographs and videos on Facebook that showed the first two churches burning. 

“The Department of Justice will remain unwavering in its protection of the freedom to practice religion without the threat of discrimination or violence,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division on the date of the pleas. “Matthews admitted to setting fire to three churches because of their religious character. His disgraceful conduct violated the civil rights of the church’s parishioners and harmed their communities.”

Matthews will be sentenced on May 22, 2020.  He faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison, and a statutory maximum sentence of 70 years in prison.

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. 


DOJ Closes Investigation After Virginia Retirement Community Permits Religious Speech in Common Areas

On January 30, the Department of Justice closed its investigation of a Fredericksburg, Virginia retirement community under the Fair Housing Act, after the management company modified its rules to treat religious uses of the common areas the same as nonreligious uses. In July 2019, the Civil Rights Division opened an investigation of Community Realty Company, which operates the Evergreens at Smith Run in Fredericksburg, after learning that a residents’ Bible study group was not allowed to meet in a clubroom used for various gatherings such as book clubs and parties. Section 804 of the Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion in the terms and conditions of housing, which include the use of public and common areas.

The Bible study group, led by a retired pastor and his wife, began holding weekly meetings in another resident’s unit in March 2017. When the group grew too large for the unit, in January 2018 the couple sought and was granted permission to hold the Bible study in the clubroom. In July 2018, management issued a new rule barring use of the clubroom for “religious purposes.” The couple filed a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development and filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia on May 21, 2019. The Department of Justice opened an investigation in July 2019.

In December 2019, the management company settled the lawsuit, agreeing to permit the Bible study to continue and agreeing to change the clubroom policy. In response, the United States closed its investigation. More information about the Department’s enforcement of  the Fair Housing Act is available on the Civil Rights Division’s Housing and Civil Enforcement homepage.

Updated March 20, 2020