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Supreme Court Hears Arguments In Prisoner RLUIPA Case

DOJ seal United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division
October 2014
Volume 61

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.


On October 7, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in Holt v. Hobbs, a case involving a challenge under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), by a Muslim prisoner in Arkansas who seeks to wear a 1/2-inch beard for religious reasons. A federal appeals court had ruled that the prison had a compelling interest in security and that limiting beards to 1/4 inch was the least restrictive means to achieve that interest.

The United States filed a friend-of-the-court brief and participated in the oral arguments. In its brief, the United States noted that "[e]very prison has a compelling interest in maintaining proper security, but not every restriction on an inmate's religious exercise meaningfully advances that interest." The United States' brief argues that prison officials had failed to demonstrate that refusing to allow the inmate to grow a 1/2-inch beard was the least restrictive means to further its security interests, in light of the difficulty of hiding contraband in a short beard compared to other available alternatives, such as the longer hair and moustaches permitted in the prison; the experience of the vast majority of penal systems in the U.S. that permit beards longer than 1/4 inch; and other factors.

RLUIPA authorizes the Attorney General to bring enforcement actions. That authority has been delegated to the Civil Rights Division, and cases involving the rights of institutionalized persons under RLUIPA are handled by the Division's Special Litigation Section. More information, including questions and answers about RLUIPA, is available on the Special Litigation Section's RLUIPA page.

Synagogue RLUIPA Suit Should Proceed, Appeals Court Rules

On September 19, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed a lower court ruling that had dismissed an Orthodox Jewish congregation's suit under RLUIPA's land use provisions. The Court of Appeals ruled that the court had applied the wrong standard for RLUIPA discrimination and substantial burden claims, agreeing with the arguments submitted by the United States as friend-of-the-court in the case, Chabad Lubavitch of Litchfield County v. Litchfield Historic District Commission.

The congregation purchased a commercial building in a historic district in Litchfield, Connecticut. The congregation sought to make various modifications, including increasing the size considerably, in order to use the property for religious activities and worship. After the Borough denied the congregation's application, it brought suit claiming various violations of RLUIPA, including discrimination on the basis of religion under RLUIPA Section 2(b)(2), and violation of RLUIPA's "substantial burden" section. The federal district court granted summary judgment for the Borough on all claims, and the congregation appealed.

The United States argued as friend-of-the court that the trial court erred in requiring that the synagogue could only maintain a RLUIPA discrimination claim if it could point to a project of identical size and scope that had been approved for another religious group. The United States also argued that the trial court erred in holding that the congregation could only show a "substantial burden" under RLUIPA section 2(a) if it could show that the Borough acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner.

The appeals court agreed with the United States on both issues. It ruled that RLUIPA discrimination claims do not require the identification of another place of worship that was "identical in all relevant respects" and had been treated better. Rather, the Second Circuit agreed that the standard set forth in the Supreme Court's Fair Housing Act decision, Village of Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Development Corp (1977), should apply. A court assessing whether discrimination occurred thus should look to "a multitude of factors, including the series of events leading up to a land use decision, the context in which the decision was made, whether the decision or decisionmaking process departed from established norms, statements made of the decisionmaking body and community members," and other factors.

The appeals court also agreed that a religious congregation does not have to prove that a denial was arbitrary and capricious in order to show that it created a substantial burden. A substantial burden on religious exercise requires a "multifaceted analysis" of the overall facts, considering things such as whether the congregation had a reasonable expectation that its project would be approved, whether reasonable alternatives exist, and other factors. The Court of Appeals remanded the case for further proceedings.

Further information on the Civil Rights Division's work enforcing the land use provisions of RLUIPA, including questions and answers about the law and a report on the first ten years of Justice Department enforcement of RLUIPA, is available at the Housing and Civil Enforcement Section's RLUIPA page.

Township Amends Zoning Code in Response to Investigation

On September 17, the Civil Rights Division closed its investigation of Bazetta, Ohio, under RLUIPA after the Township amended its zoning rules to permit places of worship in residential zones and to treat churches equally with other assemblies in commercial zones.

The investigation stemmed from the Township's denial of an application by the Living Word Sanctuary, a Christian congregation with approximately 150 members, to build a church on 33 acres it had purchased in the Township. The church had been meeting in a local YMCA, but the YMCA's own programming needs prevented it from continuing to rent the space to the church each Sunday for worship. The church also desired space for youth and adult religious education and other ministries.

The church bought 33 acres in the Township, 2.5 acres of which were zoned commercial and the remainder zoned residential. Under the zoning code, churches were permitted in residential zones but could not develop more than 3 acres. On the other hand, the zoning code required churches to have at least three acres in commercial zones, but allowed other assembly uses, including assembly halls, theaters, dance halls, funeral homes, and others, on less than three acres. The church had more than enough total land for its project, but insufficient acreage in the commercial zone and too much acreage in the residential zone.

In response to the Civil Rights Division investigation, the Township amended its zoning code to remove the special acreage restrictions on churches in the residential and commercial zones. The Civil Rights Division closed its investigation in response.

U.S. Settles Religious Accommodation Suit Against School District of Philadelphia

The Civil Rights Division announced on September 8 that it had settled its religious accommodation lawsuit against the School District of Philadelphia. The lawsuit, filed in March 2014, alleged that the school district failed to accommodate the religious practices of Siddiq Abu-Bakr, a School Police Officer who is Muslim, and other similarly-situated employees who maintain a beard longer than 1/4 inch for religious purposes.

Mr. Abu-Bakr, a school district employee for 27 years, had always worn a beard longer than 1/4 inch in adherence to his religious beliefs. The suit, brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in Federal District Court in Philadelphia, alleged that the school district had failed to meet its obligation to accommodate Mr. Abu-Bakr's longstanding religious observance when it imposed a new grooming policy in 2010 limiting beards to 1/4 inch and refused to make any accommodation for those like Mr. Abu-Bakr who wore longer beards for religious reasons.

Title VII prohibits discrimination based on race, color, sex, national origin, and religion. With regard to religion, Title VII further provides that an employer must make a reasonable accommodation of an employee's religious observances and practices unless doing so would be an undue hardship on the employer.

Under the terms of the settlement, the school district will develop and distribute a revised attire and appearance policy which includes a procedure by which school police officers can request religious accommodation. The school district agreed to notify current and prospective school police officers that their religious accommodation requests will be considered on an individualized basis. The school district also agreed to provide mandatory training on religious accommodation to certain employees.

The day the settlement was announced, Molly Moran, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, stated: "We are pleased that the school district of Philadelphia has agreed to develop a revised policy that will allow school police officers to request religious accommodations without posing an undue hardship on the school district. Through our partnership with the EEOC, the Civil Rights Division continues the commitment of the United States Department of Justice to vigorous enforcement of the nation's employment discrimination laws."

More information about the Civil Rights Division's efforts to protect workers from religious discrimination may be found on the Employment Litigation Section website.

Convictions Reversed in Case of Attack on Amish Men and Women

On August 28, a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the convictions of sixteen individuals who had been prosecuted under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 in connection with a series of assaults against Amish men and women in Ohio. The defendants, who also were Amish, had been charged with attacking the victims and cutting their beards and hair as a result of religious disputes, as well as conspiracy and other charges.

The pertinent section of the Shepard/Byrd Act makes it a crime to "willfully cause[] bodily injury to any person . . . because of the actual or perceived . . . religion . . . of any person." The panel majority ruled that the jury instructions given at trial, which allowed the jury to convict if religion were a "significant motivating factor" in the assaults, were insufficiently precise. The United States had argued on appeal that the jury instructions were proper, and that the Shepard/Byrd Act was a valid exercise of Congress's Commerce Clause power on its face and as applied to this case. The appeals court did not reach the constitutional issue.

The United States is currently assessing its options in response to the decision.

United States Files Suit Over Zoning Denial of Prayer Hall

On August 27, the United States filed suit under RLUIPA over the City of St. Anthony Village's denial of approval for an Islamic Center to operate a prayer hall in an office building's basement. The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, alleges that the City treated the Islamic Center less favorably than nonreligious assemblies allowed in the same zone, and that the City's denial imposed a "substantial burden" on the Islamic Center and its members without adequate justification.

The Abu Huraira Islamic Center had sought a location for a prayer hall in the North Minneapolis area for several years to address the lack of adequate worship space for its members, who had been gathering in homes and various small buildings in the area. In 2011, it found an office building with a large parking lot and a vacant ground floor that it thought was well-suited for a prayer hall. The building was located in a light industrial zone which permitted "assemblies, meeting lodges and convention halls," including a union hall with banquet facilities rented out to the general public. The office building is surrounded on three sides by a residential zone, and separated from the rest of the light industrial zone by a four-lane thruway.

Shortly after the Islamic Center entered a contract to purchase the building and applied for a conditional use permit in February 2012, the City imposed a moratorium on issuing permits for places of assembly in the zone. The City denied the permit, and ultimately changed the zoning code to exclude places of assembly altogether from the light industrial zone.

The suit seeks an order declaring that the City violated RLUIPA's "equal terms" provision, which requires that religious assemblies be treated at least as well as nonreligious assemblies. It also seeks an order declaring that the City's actions have imposed a "substantial burden" on the religious exercise of the Islamic Center and its members without a compelling government justification, pursued through the least restrictive means, as required by RLUIPA. The suit seeks an injunction to enforce the rights of the Islamic Center, and remedial actions to prevent future violations.

The suit is being litigated by attorneys from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Minnesota and the Civil Rights Division's Housing and Civil Enforcement Section.

United States Dismisses Murfreesboro Mosque Case After Supreme Court Denies Review

On July 28, the United States dismissed its suit as moot in the long-running RLUIPA case involving the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, after the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a related state appeals court decision that the Islamic Center's construction had followed all proper procedures.

As discussed in Volume 53, the United States filed suit under RLUIPA and won a temporary restraining order in federal court in Tennessee in July 2012 after a state Chancery Court had blocked Rutherford County from issuing a certificate of occupancy to the mosque. The Chancery Court action had been brought by county residents opposed to the mosque based on a wide range of claims, including claims that the mosque would endanger county residents from terrorism.

The Chancery Court ruled against the mosque opponents on most claims, but ruled that the notice for the meeting at which the mosque was approved had been inadequate, finding that the mosque project was a matter of great public concern and additional notice beyond what was customary for approving places of worship was required. The Chancery Court thus blocked the county from issuing a certificate of occupancy. The U.S. District Court in the United States' RLUIPA suit ruled that the county's compliance with the Chancery Court order would impose a "substantial burden" on the religious exercise of the mosque and its members without compelling governmental justification, and ordered the county to disregard the Chancery Court order.

On appeal of the Chancery Court decision, the Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled that the notice for the meeting approving the mosque had indeed been adequate, and the Tennessee Supreme Court denied review. The U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari on June 2, 2014, thus upholding the ruling that the notice of the mosque was proper. The United States dismissed its RLUIPA suit, which it had voluntarily stayed during the appeals process, after all matters in the state court action were closed.

Update: Utah Man Sentenced to 60 Months in Attack on Synagogue and Gun Charges

On July 15, a federal judge in Utah sentenced Macon Openshaw to 60 months in prison for a bias-motivated attack at a local synagogue and for two unlawful gun possession charges. As reported in the May 2014 issue, Openshaw pleaded guilty in April to firing a .22 caliber handgun at the Congregation Kol Ami synagogue in Salt Lake City in 2012 when the synagogue was unoccupied.

United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

Updated May 31, 2023