Department of Justice Positions Prevail in Two Federal Religious Liberty Lawsuits
Two federal courts handed down decisions this week protecting religious liberty and agreeing with the positions of the Department of Justice in those cases. In the first case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that a federal trial court had improperly dismissed a suit by a small African Christian congregation under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The congregation alleges that Baltimore County, Maryland, improperly denied the congregation zoning approval for a new church. In the second case, the United States District Court for the District of Iowa ruled that the University of Iowa violated the First Amendment rights of a student group when the University de-registered the group for requiring its student leaders to adhere to the group’s religious beliefs, while not applying that same requirement to other student groups.
“The Department of Justice is committed to protecting the religious, associational, and expressive freedoms enshrined in federal law,” said Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio. “We are pleased the courts agreed with the Department in these two cases, and we will continue to work to protect the rights of people of all faiths.”
In Jesus Christ is the Answer Ministries v. Baltimore County, Maryland, the appeals court ruled that a 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. The congregation sued under RLUIPA, which protects places of worship from discriminatory or unjustifiably burdensome application of zoning regulations. The suit alleged that neighbors opposing the plan had made racially and ethnically charged statements about the worship style of the congregation including references to “dancing and hollering” as if they were “home back in Africa.” The suit also alleged that the church had made reasonable proposals and modifications to its plan and that their religious exercise was “substantially burdened” in violation of RLUIPA by the denial. The court of appeals agreed with the brief of the United States that both of these claims should be permitted to proceed.
In Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC) v. University of Iowa, the court agreed with the Statement of Interest filed by the United States, and ruled that the University of Iowa violated students’ rights of expressive association and free exercise of religion by de-registering a Christian student group. The university had de-registered the group because BLinC limits its leadership to persons who agree with its religious beliefs. The court found that the University applied the de-registration policy in a discriminatory manner by allowing other student groups to similarly limit their membership or leadership if the University felt the groups supported the University’s “education or social purposes.”
The Department of Justice announced the Religious Liberty Task Force in July, 2018. The Task Force helps the Department fully implement the religious liberty guidance by ensuring that all Justice Department components are upholding that guidance in the cases they bring and defend, the arguments they make in court, the policies and regulations they adopt, and how we conduct our operations.
More information about RLUIPA is available on the Place to Worship Initiative homepage, www.justice.gov/crt/placetoworship.