RLUIPA Investigation Closed After Town Allows Church To Meet And Amends Zoning Code

DOJ seal United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

October 2011
Volume 49

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.


On October 27, the Civil Rights Division closed its investigation of Schodack, New York under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) after the town agreed to allow a church to move into space it had rented and amended its zoning code to treat religious assemblies equally with nonreligious assemblies. The Civil Rights Division had opened an investigation in November 2010, after receiving a complaint that the town had told the Immanuel Church that it had to obtain a variance to rent space in a commercial zone where nonreligious assemblies were permitted as of right, and then denied the church's variance request.

Immanuel Church is a small Christian church with less than 80 members. In late 2009, the church began a search for property to rent in the Town of Schodack for Sunday worship, offices, and religious education classes. The church entered into a lease for office space in a building in a commercial district that previously had been used as a training center. At the time, Schodack's zoning ordinance only allowed churches in three residential districts, and then only with a special use permit. Churches were barred from commercial districts, although non-religious assemblies such as membership clubs and lodges, funeral homes, libraries, and museums could locate as a matter of right in those districts. Certain other nonreligious assemblies, including recreational facilities, indoor and outdoor amusement businesses, civic centers, and theaters, could locate in a commercial zone with a special use permit.

The Civil Rights Division opened an investigation to determine whether the city's actions were in violation of Section 2(b)(1) of RLUIPA, which provides 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."

In response to the investigation, the town granted the Immanuel Church a five-year special use permit to rent the space. The town also revised its zoning ordinance on August 25, 2011. It now treats religious assemblies equally with membership clubs and lodges, permitting them as of right or with a special use permit in the vast majority of zoning districts.

RLUIPA, enacted in 2000, contains a number of different provisions protecting churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other places of worship from discrimination and undue interference with religious exercise through application of zoning and landmarking laws. On the tenth anniversary of RLUIPA on September 22, 2010, the Department of Justice issued a Report on Enforcement of RLUIPA, along with a Statement on RLUIPA with common questions and answers about this important law. More information about RLUIPA is available at the Civil Rights Division Housing and Civil Enforcement Section website.

Consent Decree Requires Religious Accommodation for Teacher

On October 24, an Illinois federal court approved a consent decree resolving a United States lawsuit alleging that a school district failed to provide a reasonable accommodation of a teacher's religious practices. The suit, United States v. Berkeley School District 87, filed in December 2010, had alleged that the district violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it refused to reasonably accommodate a Muslim teacher's request for an unpaid leave of absence to attend the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca.

Title VII requires that employers make a reasonable accommodation of employees' religious observances and practices, unless doing so would be an undue hardship on the employer. The Civil Rights Division is charged with bringing Title VII cases against public employers, and these cases often involve accommodations to work schedules. For example, the Civil Rights Division brought a suit in 2004 that resulted in the Los Angeles's transit authority accommodating an Orthodox Jewish bus driver's Sabbath, brought a suit in 2007 that resulted in Palm Beach County, Florida accommodating a Christian park ranger's need to observe the Sabbath, and successfully litigated a case in 1995, United States v. Board of Trustees of Southern Illinois University, on behalf of a Christian employee who had been denied an eight-day leave of absence to attend the annual "Feast of the Tabernacles" of his church, the Worldwide Church of God.

In the Berkeley, Illinois case, the United States alleged that a middle school computer math lab teacher was denied an unpaid leave of absence to attend the Hajj, a pilgrimage required by her religion. According to the United States, the school denied her a reasonable accommodation of her religious practice, compelling her to choose between her job and her beliefs, thus forcing her constructive discharge.

The suit was based on a charge of discrimination filed by the teacher with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. After the EEOC investigated the teacher's complaint and found reasonable cause to believe that the school had violated her Title VII rights, and unsuccessfully tried to conciliate the dispute, the EEOC referred the charge to the Civil Rights Division. The Division filed suit in the case on December 13, 2010.

Under the terms of the decree, the District will pay the teacher $75,000 in back pay, damages and attorney's fees. The District also will develop a policy to reasonably accommodate the religious beliefs, practices, and observances of employees and prospective employees, and provide training on religious accommodation to its board members, supervisors, and human resources officials.

The day that the consent decree was announced, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas E. Perez, stated: "Employees should not have to choose between practicing their religion and their jobs. The facts of this case show the consequences of an employer refusing to engage in any interactive process to understand and work with an employee to find an accommodation of the employee's religious beliefs that will not cause undue hardship to the employer. We are pleased that Berkeley School District has agreed to implement a training program that puts into place an interactive process to ensure that each request for a religious accommodation will be considered on a case-by-case basis and granted if it poses no undue hardship on the school district."

This is the first lawsuit brought by the Department of Justice as a result of a pilot project designed to ensure vigorous enforcement of Title VII against state and local governmental employers by enhancing cooperation between the EEOC and the Civil Rights Division.

In addition to investigating charges of discrimination and referring public employer cases to the Department of Justice, the EEOC litigates cases against private employers. Like the Civil Rights Division, the EEOC has for many years been active in cases seeking religious accommodations for employees. For example, the EEOC filed suit in 2007 against a Tennessee hospital that failed to provide a leave of absence for a medical technician' Hajj pilgrimage, and over the years has filed numerous cases involving leaves of absence sought by members of the Worldwide Church of God.

More information on the Civil Rights Division's Title VII cases involving religious discrimination and other forms of discrimination in the workplace is available at the Employment Litigation Section homepage.

Religious Exemption Applies to Faith-Based Programs, Appeals Court Rules

On September 19, a federal appeals court ruled that a Christian homeless shelter and residential substance abuse program falls within an exception to the Fair Housing Act (FHA) allowing religious organizations to give preference to persons of the same religion. The United States Court of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit ruled in the case, Intermountain Fair Housing Council v. Boise Rescue Mission, that the Rescue Mission could dismiss a woman from its drug treatment program who had decided that she did not want to be a Christian, and that it had not violated the FHA by giving preferential treatment to shelter patrons who attended religious services. The United States had filed an amicus brief in the case in April arguing that the religious exemption of the FHA applied to the case.

The case involved claims by two individuals that they were victims of religious discrimination by the Boise Rescue Mission. One was a woman who was admitted to a comprehensive Discipleship Program, a one-year substance abuse program that requires participants to engage in Bible study, worship, prayer and other religious activities. The woman was eventually terminated from the program because she did not adhere to the religious beliefs of the Discipleship Program. The second claim was by a man in the regular homeless shelter program of the Rescue Mission. He claimed that he stopped going to the shelter because he had been told by an employee that he would have to attend religious services, and because certain preferences were given to those attending religious services. They both brought suit under the Fair Housing Act.

The United States' brief argued that while the Fair Housing Act applies to homeless shelters, the Rescue Mission was entitled to invoke the Fair Housing Act's religious organizations exemption. The exemption provides that the FHA does not prohibit a religious organization from "limiting the sale, rental or occupancy of dwellings which it owns or operates for other than a commercial purpose to persons of the same religion, or from giving preference to such persons, unless membership in such religion is restricted on account of race, color, or national origin."

The Court of Appeals agreed, holding that the Rescue Mission could limit the Discipleship program to those who either were Christian or wanted to become Christian. Likewise, the Court held that the Rescue Mission could give preference in the homeless shelter to those who attended the religious services they offered.

More information about the Department of Justice's enforcement of the Fair Housing Act may be found at the Civil Rights Division's Housing and Civil Enforcement Section's homepage.

Consent Decree Reached in Virginia Mosque Dispute

On September 12, a federal court in Virginia approved a consent decree resolving the United States' lawsuit alleging that the County of Henrico, Virginia violated RLUIPA when it denied a request for rezoning by a Muslim organization to construct a mosque. The settlement, which was approved by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in Richmond, resolved a suit by the United States filed on September 6.

The case arose from the county's denial of a 2008 application for construction of a mosque by 1241 Associates, LLC, a Muslim organization. The government's complaint, which was filed with the court along with a proposed consent decree, alleged that the county's denial of the rezoning application was based on the religious bias of county officials and to appease members of the public who, because of religious bias, opposed the construction of the mosque. The complaint further alleged that the county treated the Muslim organization differently than non-Muslim groups that regularly have been granted similar rezoning requests.

As part of the settlement, the county agreed to treat the mosque and all religious groups equally and to publicize its non-discrimination policies and practices. The county also agreed that its leaders and various county employees will attend training on the requirements of RLUIPA. In addition, the county will report periodically to the Justice Department.

"Religious freedom is one of our most cherished rights, and that right includes the ability to assemble and build places of worship without facing discrimination," said Thomas Perez, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, the day the decree was filed. "We are pleased that the county of Henrico has agreed to take steps to ensure that all people exercising this basic American right will not encounter discrimination during the zoning and land use process."

On September 1, 2011, the Department reached a similar consent decree in federal court in Georgia, resolving allegations that the City of Lilburn violated RLUIPA when it denied an Islamic Center's requests for rezoning to expand its mosque. The United States' complaint in that case also alleged that the city's denials of the rezoning requests were based on religious bias of city officials and to appease members of the public opposed to the mosque because of religious bias.

United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

Updated August 6, 2015

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