Thank you, Jesse. We are honored to have such a distinguished panel with a wide range of experiences, and I am eager to hear your perspectives.
I would like to take a moment to frame the discussion. The freedom of religion is the first freedom that our Founding Fathers enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution. So what we are talking about today is one of the foundational principles of our grand American experiment.
We in the Civil Rights Division are honored to carry out the fundamental work of our nation’s democracy day in and day out. Our mission is to enforce the laws that make the country more free, more fair, more open, more equal, and more just for all Americans. Among the core laws we uphold are laws that protect the freedom of religion. Religious freedom would be a hollow right if there were no laws to protect it and no enforcement to ensure that people of all faiths may worship freely and without fear according to the dictates of their own conscience.
The Civil Rights Division enforces the Religious Land Use And Institutionalized Persons Act, also known as RLUIPA. RLUIPA protects religious communities and individuals against discriminatory or unduly burdensome application of state or local land use laws.
Since January 2017, the Division has opened nearly two dozen RLUIPA investigations involving houses of worship and diverse faiths all across the country. Just last month, we filed suit against Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, alleging that it violated RLUIPA by interfering, over an eight-year period, with an Orthodox Jewish community’s efforts to construct a new facility. Over the past year and a half, we have reached settlements in four RLUIPA cases involving Muslim communities seeking to build mosques. And in the past two months, we have filed amicus briefs in RLUIPA cases involving a proposed Hindu temple in Howard County, Maryland; a Catholic church in Mission Woods, Kansas; and a small African evangelical church in Baltimore County, Maryland.
As the Attorney General mentioned, to help expand our RLUIPA enforcement and increase public awareness, last month we launched the Place to Worship initiative. Information about this initiative is available at the tables in the back and on our website, www.justice.gov/crt.
The Civil Rights Division also has protected religious freedom by filing amicus briefs in a range of recent civil cases outside the RLUIPA context. Those briefs have advocated for protection of the religious rights of parents in Montana to choose to religious schools for their kids; of a college student in Georgia to hand out religious leaflets and share his faith on campus; and of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., to buy ad space without discrimination for its “Find the Perfect Gift” campaign last December.
On the criminal side, the Civil Rights Division zealously and aggressively enforces the nation’s hate crimes laws, including the Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Our message is simple: in the fight against hate crimes, your Department of Justice stands with you. Combatting hate crimes is, and will remain, one of the top priorities of the Department and the Civil Rights Division. Our goal is to eradicate hate crime our communities and our country – and our commitment to that goal will never falter.
Hate crimes strike at our most basic American values. As Attorney General Sessions recently said, targeting people because of who they are or what they believe “target[s] the bedrock principles on which our nation was founded.” This is especially true of religiously-motivated hate crimes because when criminals target victims because of their religion, they are targeting the freedom of conscience at the bedrock of our Bill of Rights.
Hate crimes are also especially pernicious because they are violent crimes. They terrorize victims, their families, and entire communities. They are attempts to deny our common humanity. And they are often perpetrated to deny people their most basic and fundamental civil rights, such as the right to housing, the right to equal employment, or the right to worship.
Since January 2017, the Civil Rights Division has been combatting hate crimes and religiously-motivated hate crimes wherever we find them. We have indicted and convicted more than 32 defendants on federal hate crimes charges. We have secured 11 indictments and 7 convictions in cases involving arson, physical attacks, or conspiracy or threats to commit such attacks against places of worship. One of those cases was the guilty verdict in the Texas mosque arson case that the Attorney General mentioned this morning. Another involved the series of three indictments against the U.S.-Israeli dual citizen who last year allegedly made the threats against Jewish Community Centers that created widespread fear and uncertainty all around the world.
The Civil Rights Division has secured an additional 12 indictments and 3 convictions in other religion-related attacks or threats against individuals. One of those cases involved a man who earlier this year pleaded guilty to threatening to burn down a house that a Florida Muslim family had contracted to buy, in an attempt to disrupt the sale.
We are proud of what we have accomplished, but we realize that much, much more remains to be done to protect the universal right of religious freedom. We look forward to elevating and advancing our public discourse on that issue today.