Dunn v. Smith

Leveling down to avoid religious accommodations

Until recently, Alabama required that a clergy member be present at the execution of a prisoner. But in 2019, the Alabama Department of Corrections abruptly changed its policy to instead ban all clergy members from the execution chamber in response to a Supreme Court ruling in a Texas prisoner’s case, Murphy v. Collier.

In the Texas case, Patrick Murphy was awaiting death by lethal injection, and his final request was for his Buddhist minister to pray with him at his execution. The state of Texas denied his request, arguing that his Buddhist minister was a security risk, even though the state allowed Christian ministers and Muslim imams into the chamber and the minister was a frequent chaplain to Texas prisoners. On March 28, 2019—two and a half hours after Murphy was scheduled to die—the Supreme Court stepped in and said that Texas could not go forward with the execution unless it granted Murphy access to his Buddhist spiritual advisor.

As a result of the Supreme Court’s decision, Texas and Alabama made an ugly move to avoid accommodating minority religions. Both states changed their policies to ban all clergy members from the execution chamber.

Defending the comfort of clergy in the death chamber

Fast forward to 2021. Alabama prisoner, Willie B. Smith was scheduled to be executed for his crimes on February 11, 2021. Smith’s minister, Pastor Robert Paul Wiley, Jr., attested that during his time in prison, Smith repented of his sins and developed a strong personal faith. Pastor Wiley has spent years ministering to Smith in prison. Smith asked that Pastor Wiley be allowed to accompany him in the execution chamber but, in accordance with Alabama’s new discriminatory policy, his request was denied.

Smith sued the state of Alabama for his right to be accompanied by his pastor at the moment of death. The district court ruled against Smith, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled in his favor. Alabama appealed to the Supreme Court on February 11, 2021, the morning of Smith’s scheduled execution.

Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Smith, arguing that 13 out of 20 prisoners executed in the United States over the past year were allowed to have a clergy member of their choice present in the execution chamber. If the federal government and other states have been able to offer this religious accommodation, so too should Alabama. The brief also argued that the Constitution requires more than equal, bad treatment for all faiths. It requires that all Americans, including prisoners, be accommodated in their religious exercise whenever possible.

Late on the night of February 11, 2021 the Supreme Court declined to disturb the court of appeals ruling that Alabama must allow Smith to be accompanied by his pastor in the execution chamber. Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Barrett, agreed with the Court’s decision, writing that “past practice, in Alabama and elsewhere, shows that a prison may ensure security without barring all clergy members from the execution chamber.”

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Individual Freedom: Religion is an innate human desire, and all individuals regardless of their legal status deserve protection of their constitutional right to practice and adhere to their faith.
  • RLUIPA: Like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was passed with bipartisan support. RLUIPA ensures religious liberty in two areas where it is most vulnerable: land use and prisons.

Alabama prisoner to Supreme Court: let me pray with my pastor at the hour of my death

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court is now considering an Alabama prisoner’s request to have access to a clergy member of his faith in the chamber during his execution for prayer and spiritual guidance. The Alabama Department of Corrections has banned all clergy from the execution chamber, depriving prisoners like Willie Smith from praying with a clergy member during their final moments. Smith’s execution was scheduled for today, but late last night a federal appeals court ordered Alabama to allow Smith’s pastor to enter the chamber. Alabama has now asked the Supreme Court to reverse that decision and allow the execution to go forward without comfort of clergy.

“Allowing clergy to be present for condemned prisoners at the moment of death is an ancient and common practice, one that Alabama is familiar with,” said Diana Verm, senior counsel at Becket. “In fact, until 2019, Alabama not only allowed but required clergy in the death chamber. That shows Alabama is less concerned about security than it is about litigation tactics.”

Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Dunn v. Smith in support of Smith’s request for Pastor Robert Paul Wiley, Jr. to accompany him to the gurney. Becket pointed out that most of the prisoners who were executed in the United States over the last year were allowed to have a clergy member of their choice present in the execution chamber. If the federal government and other states have been able to offer this religious accommodation, Alabama should be able to as well. In fact, Alabama required clergy in the chamber until 2019, when it changed its requirement as a result of prisoner litigation requesting equal treatment. In Murphy v. Collier, a Buddhist prisoner requested that his spiritual advisor be available instead of the Christian or Muslim chaplains that the prison provided. When the Supreme Court required equal treatment for all faiths, Alabama banned all clergy from the death chamber, even its own prison chaplains.

“The Constitution and federal law require more than equal treatment, they require that prisoners be allowed to exercise their sincere religious faith whenever possible,” said Verm. “That includes allowing clergy to pray with prisoners as they cross over into death.”

The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit required Alabama to allow clergy into the execution chamber, likely delaying the execution that was scheduled for today. Alabama has asked the Supreme Court to reverse that order.

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Spirit of Aloha Temple v. County of Maui

A sanctuary for spiritual growth

A Hindu organization called Spirit of Aloha Temple purchased land in Maui County, Hawaii, in 2007 for religious use. Years later, the Temple decided to expand its ministry by holding weddings on its property. Because the land was zoned for agricultural use, to construct the facilities it needed to host celebrations, the Temple had to apply for a special use permit from the county (a permit which secular entities are routinely granted).

Stifled by bureaucrats

Unfortunately, the Temple was denied the permit application by a commission of unelected government bureaucrats, who cited concerns such as increased traffic to the area around wedding celebrations. The Spirit of Aloha Temple sued, arguing that the permit denial restricted the practice of its faith and violated the RLUIPA. Passed by Congress in 2000, RLUIPA protects people of all faiths from zoning and land use laws being manipulated to squelch religious practices on a religious organization’s own land.

Protecting religious exercise on religious land

Here, a federal court undermined the independent check that RLUIPA provides against local bureaucrats. Rather than independently review the denial of the Temple’s land-use permit, the lower court deferred to the local bureaucrats when reviewing whether their decision was fair. Given that unwarranted deference, it is no surprise that the Temple’s RLUIPA claims were dismissed.

In March 2020, Becket filed a brief in support of the Temple at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Representing Becket on the brief was the Stanford Law School Religious Liberty Clinic, including faculty members Prof. Jim Sonne and Zeba Huq, and students Claire Greenberg and Nathaniel Bernstein. Comprehensively laying out RLUIPA’s text, history, and structure, Becket’s brief confirms that the government bureaucrats cannot both decide whether the Spirit of Aloha Temple can use their land to hold wedding services and then have their findings blindly followed when facing judicial review. Concluding otherwise would undermine the careful balance that Congress sought to ensure for people of all faiths by passing RLUIPA.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Property rightsPracticing one’s faith almost always requires land use, but, unfortunately, this aspect of religious exercise is too often denied to groups who can’t afford to fight local zoning commissions or hostility. Becket fights to ensure the rights of minority faith groups to build houses of worship under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

Sossamon v. Texas

Getting right with God

Harvey Sossamon was an inmate in a Texas. He wanted to cultivate his faith even while in prison, but he was denied access to the prison chapel for religious services even though other inmates were allowed access to the same space for secular uses such as marriage training sessions and sex education. Instead, the prison officials allowed worship services to be held only in multi-purpose spaces where there were no religious symbols to aid in worship.

This meant that, while he was able to practice his faith in multi-purpose spaces, he was unable to engage in essential aspects of Christian worship such as kneeling at the altar or praying at the foot of a cross.

Pursuing equal access

Sossamon sued the prison officials in their individual capacities, arguing that denying him access to the chapel unfairly burdened his religious exercise and is prohibited under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), an important civil rights law that protects the religious liberty of prisoners and patients.

Denied just recourse

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas ruled against Sossamon, finding that he could not sue the officials in their individual capacity under RLUIPA. On appeal to the Fifth Circuit, Sossamon lost again. Sossamon appealed his case to the Supreme Court of the United States. At the Supreme Court, Becket filed an amicus brief that explained why it is so important for religious individuals to be able to sue government officials under the federal civil rights laws. The Supreme Court affirmed the Fifth Circuit’s decision on technical grounds, holding that Congress had not been specific enough in the wording of RLUIPA to override the State of Texas’s sovereign immunity. Justice Sotomayor dissented, discussing at length Becket’s kosher diet case Moussazadeh v. Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Importance to Religious Liberty:
Individual Freedom—In order for individuals to have the freedom to exercise their beliefs without government interference, individual government actors who take adverse action against religious liberty must be able to be held personally responsible.

Buddhist inmate still fighting for clergy in the Texas death chamber after second stay of execution

WASHINGTON – After a federal court issued a second stay of execution on Thursday to Buddhist death row inmate Patrick Murphy, Becket is now urging the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to allow Murphy access to a Buddhist priest in the execution chamber. Murphy’s execution is scheduled for November 13. The U.S. Supreme Court first stayed the execution in Murphy v. Collier in March, following Becket’s argument that depriving Patrick Murphy access to a priest of his own faith violated his free exercise rights under the First Amendment. A Houston federal district court stayed Murphy’s execution a second time Thursday, prompting the State of Texas to file an emergency appeal to the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans. The Fifth Circuit ordered briefing in the appeal to be filed over the weekend.

Becket’s friend-of-the-court brief argues that prisoners condemned to death have a fundamental First Amendment right to the comfort of clergy in their last hours. Because Texas changed its policy specifically to deny Murphy comfort of clergy at the hour of his death, the Fifth Circuit should apply the highest level of constitutional scrutiny to Texas’s decision to ban Buddhist priests from the death chamber and even from speaking with the condemned close in time to the execution. Particularly because Texas long allowed Christians and Muslims to accompany the condemned to the death chamber, there is no logical or moral reason to exclude Buddhist priests.

The following statement can be attributed to Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket:

“Our country has long afforded the comfort of clergy to the condemned at the hour of his death. That we do so says more about who we are as a nation than it does about the condemned. Texas long allowed ministers in the death chamber, so there is no practical reason why Texas can’t allow it for Buddhists also. The Fifth Circuit should order Texas to allow Murphy access to a Buddhist priest at the time of his death.”

Texas’s previous policy allowed Christian and Muslim clergy to accompany prisoners in the execution chamber, but following the Supreme Court stay in March, the State changed its pre-execution procedure to block all spiritual advisors from entering the chamber. The new policy does allow employed chaplains to be with an inmate just before execution. Murphy has argued, and Becket agrees, that depriving inmates of access to a spiritual advisor of their own faith in the final moments before death flies in the face of the First Amendment.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Patrick Henry Murphy v. Bryan Collier, Executive Director, Texas Department of Criminal Justice

On the evening of March 28, Patrick Murphy was awaiting death by lethal injection. His final request for his Buddhist minister to pray with him at his execution, and help lead him into the afterlife in which he believes, had been denied. Yet at 9:20 pm—two and a half hours after Murphy was scheduled to die—the Supreme Court of the United States stepped in. The Court said that Texas could not go forward with the execution unless and until it granted Murphy the right to a reverend of his own faith at his side.

It was a shock—especially given that just weeks before, the Supreme Court refused to stop the execution of Muslim prisoner Domineque Ray when he was denied an imam at his own moment of death.

The story of what changed—and how Becket helped win the rights of the condemned to the comfort of clergy—comes down to the power of arguments based on principle.

Texas denies religious rights at death 

For the past six years, Patrick Murphy has practiced his Buddhist faith in prison with the help of spiritual advisor Rev. Hui-Yong Shih. Mr. Murphy believes that the presence of his spiritual advisor in the moments before his execution is necessary to assist him to maintain the focus required to be reborn in the Pure Land after death.

Despite Texas permitting Rev. Shih to visit Mr. Murphy in prison for over six years, and despite official prison approval of Rev. Shih as a prison spiritual advisor, the State of Texas refused Mr. Murphy’s request to have Rev. Shih present with him in the execution chamber. Texas made the surprising argument that a Buddhist minister was a security risk to the prison. And this was despite the fact that Texas already permitted Christian ministers and Muslim imams to be present in the execution chamber.

An eleventh-hour voice of reason 

Death penalty appeals are harried, and provoke strong feelings and emotions from all sides. In order to help prevent this from clouding the key religious liberty issues at stake, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the Supreme Court. This brief pointed the way toward a clear path that could protect the religious liberty of Mr. Murphy, while cutting through the competing arguments and ideological differences that are usually involved in a death penalty appeal.

Becket’s brief made the point that principles of religious liberty—and the very tangible religious liberty interest of Mr. Murphy—should not be ignored simply because the Court might not approve of the delay tactics that often accompany a Supreme Court death penalty appeal. Instead, the Court could protect religious liberty and find other ways to make their dislike of last-minute stay applications known.

More specifically, Becket marshaled key legal and historical sources to explain why a prisoner facing imminent execution has the constitutional right to turn to his minister for crucial support:

“The guidance of the soul at the moment of execution—the moment at which the knife falls—has for centuries been well recognized as a crucial moment of religious exercise calling for a minister’s guidance. This Court should recognize that our Constitution and civil rights laws support a right to that guidance.”

Becket asked that the Court order the State of Texas to grant Murphy access to his Buddhist minister in the execution chamber, which is exactly what the Supreme Court did.

The Supreme Court took action 

Almost two and a half hours after the scheduled start of Murphy’s execution by the State of Texas, the United States Supreme Court issued an order halting Murphy’s execution. The Court ruled that Texas could not proceed with the execution “unless the State permits Murphy’s Buddhist spiritual advisor… to accompany Murphy in the execution chamber,” exactly following Becket’s recommendation.

Justice Kavanaugh wrote separately, reinforcing the fact that “governmental discrimination against religion—in particular, discrimination against religious persons, religious organizations, and religious speech—violates the Constitution.”

What changed?  

But what about the Muslim prisoner who was denied the same source of comfort at the moment of his death just a month earlier? One factor is clear: Becket’s involvement in the case brought new legal arguments to the table—arguments that were not made in the prior appeal to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, without the benefit of these arguments, was not presented with the full picture. Becket relied on cases that support the Free Exercise of religion, and prevent discrimination against people with different religious beliefs as a result. But the arguments previously made in support of the Muslim prisoner were more limited, and focused instead on different legal protections. This change was crucial to the protection of religious liberty in principle and in practice.

Importance to Religious Liberty

  • Individual Freedom: Religion is an innate human desire, and all individuals regardless of their legal status deserve protection of their constitutional right to practice and adhere to their faith.
  • RLUIPA: Like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was passed with bipartisan support. RLUIPA ensures religious liberty in two areas where it is most vulnerable: land use and prisons.

Supreme Court stays execution, requires Texas to allow Buddhist prisoner access to priest in execution chamber 

WASHINGTON Late tonight, and two and a half hours after the scheduled start to the execution of Patrick Henry Murphy by the State of Texas, the Supreme Court voted 7-2 to stay his execution. The Supreme Court ruled that Texas could not proceed with the execution unless it permitted a Buddhist spiritual advisor to be with Murphy in the execution chamber. Texas already allows Christian and Muslim clergy to accompany prisoners in the execution chamber. 

The following statement can be attributed to Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket: 

Religious liberty won today. The Supreme Court made it clear that the First Amendment applies to every American, no matter their faith. As we said in our brief to the Court, you can’t give fewer rights to Buddhists than you give to Christians or Muslims. In his last moments, a condemned man can receive both comfort from a minister of his own faith, and equal treatment under the law. 

The Supreme Court’s ruling followed Becket’s recommendation, after Becket filed an emergency amicus brief at the Court earlier today urging the Court to require Texas to allow a Buddhist minister to accompany Murphy to the execution chamber. 

Justice Kavanaugh wrote a concurring opinion, reinforcing the fact that “governmental discrimination against religionin particular, discrimination against religious persons, religious organizations, and religious speech violates the Constitution.  

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219.  Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Additional Information: 

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions  and has a 100% win-rate before the United States  Supreme Court.  For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more here). 

Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania

Government cannot take private property without “just compensation”

Rose Mary Knick lives on 90 acres of farmland in the Township of Scott, Pennsylvania, which her family has owned for nearly 50 years. In April 2013, Township officials entered and searched Ms. Knick’s private property without a warrant, saw a few stones that appeared to be grave markers, and claimed that Ms. Knick’s private property was considered a cemetery, and therefore must be made accessible to the public. Ms. Knick challenged the Township, since, by requiring her property to be open to the public, it had violated the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause, which forbids that “private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

The district court dismissed her case—not because Ms. Knick was wrong, but because, under an old Supreme Court precedent called Williamson County, Ms. Knick had to complete a lengthy bureaucratic process before she could assert her constitutional rights in court. Ms. Knick continued appealing her case all the way to the Supreme Court.

Takings Clause interpretation leaves houses of worship vulnerable

The Williamson County rule is bad enough when applied in takings cases like Ms. Knick’s. But some courts have extended the rule to apply also to claims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a bipartisan congressional law passed to protect property rights for houses of worship and minimize the unfair delays, expenses, and hurdles they often suffer at the hands of zoning officials. Houses of worship are particularly vulnerable to this kind of abuse, and RLUIPA has played a critical role in ensuring that religious groups are not discriminated against as they find a space to gather for worship and religious exercise.

Becket has stood up for churches, a Jewish synagogue, a Sikh temple, a Buddhist temple, a mosque and even a Hawaiian agricultural Christian community that have faced zoning discrimination. But application of the Williamson County rule to RLUIPA cases undermines RLUIPA’s protection of religious groups, particularly minority faiths, allowing local governments hostile to religious groups to simply strangle it with red tape.

Becket steps in to protect RLUIPA standards

In October 2017, Ms. Knick appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in order to protect herself and others from the harmful Williamson County rule and ensure that Takings Clause cases are brought to court without years of bureaucratic delay. In March 2018, the Supreme Court agreed to hear her case. On June 5, 2018, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Supreme Court, pointing out how some lower courts have expanded the Williamson County rule to RLUIPA cases and arguing that this application undermines RLUIPA and unjustly harms religious groups. When their property rights are violated, houses of worship should be free to challenge the government under RLUIPA instead of spending time and money they do not have on a burdensome bureaucratic process.

Oral argument took place on October 3, 2018. On June 21, 2019 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Ms. Knick. Chief Justice Roberts announced that the precedent from Williamson County was overruled in part, writing, “Contrary to Williamson County, a property owner has a claim for a violation of the Takings Clause as soon as a government takes his property for public use without paying for it.” Ms. Knick is represented by Pacific Legal Foundation.

 


Importance to religious liberty

  • Property rights: Houses of worship and religious organizations are particularly vulnerable when it comes to property rights. When their rights are violated, they should be free to challenge the government without spending time and money they do not have on a burdensome bureaucratic process.

Chahal v. Seamunds

The United States Military Academy at West Point will now accommodate Sikh soldiers, allowing them to wear their essential articles of faith, after two young men persisted for the right to serve their country without being forced to abandon their articles of faith. 

Called to serve their country 

Cadet Arjan Singh Ghotra has been preparing to serve in the U.S. Army since high school. He volunteered for both the Civil Air Patrol and the Virginia Defense Force, and won the Virginia Defense Force Medal for his service at age 17. When he became eligible in 2015, Cadet Ghotra enlisted in the Virginia Army National Guard. After completing one year in the National Guard he applied to, and was accepted at, West Point.  

Like Cadet Ghotra, Cadet Ugrian Singh Chahal knew at a young age that he wanted to serve his country through the military. Inspired by a family history of army service and the service members he met growing up near the Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Michigan, Cadet Chahal worked hard and, like Cadet Ghotra, gained admission to West Point in 2016. 

Denied the ability to serve both God and Country  

From World War I until 1981, the U.S. Army allowed observant Sikhs to serve honorably in the U.S. military while maintaining their articles of faith. But a 1981 policy change banned observant Sikhs from military service simply because they wore turbans and unshorn hair and beards—two of the articles of faith required by their religion.  

As observant Sikhs, Cadets Ghotra and Chahal asked for accommodations that would permit them to continue their service to their country at West Point without having to abandon their articles of faith. Their requests were denied. They were left with the heartbreaking choice: to serve their country or to follow their faith. 

Making room for faith in the ranks 

When Cadet Ghotra realized in March 2016 that he would not be able to participate in practice drills at West Point because of the prohibition on his articles of faith, he submitted his request for a religious accommodation. But because the Army refused to respond, Becket, the Sikh Coalition, and McDermott Will & Emery stepped in to challenge the Army’s policy.  

At a court hearing in August, the Army conceded that it had no legitimate grounds for denying Sikhs the full opportunity to serve their country at West Point and issued new guidelines allowing them to maintain their articles of faith while serving.   

Cadets Ghotra and Chahal are the first two fully-observant Sikh men to serve at West Point. 

Court to hear Chabad’s ten-year plea for fairness

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A Jewish congregation in Florida, which for 10 years has been trying to build a new house of worship, is going to court next week to defend itself against a lawsuit that seeks to discriminate against houses of worship (watch this video about the Chabad’s experience).

In Gagliardi v. The City of Boca Raton, Fla., two landowners opposed to the Chabad of East Boca Raton claim that the city “established a religion” by granting equal access for houses of worship, including synagogues, to be built in business districts. But equal access is required by federal law, and the landowners have already lost twice at the federal district court. They continue to delay by appealing to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which will hear the case on Wednesday, January 31. Last year, national and international groups and local leaders filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of the Chabad’s right to equal treatment

What:
Oral Argument in Gagliardi v. Boca Raton 

Who:
Payvand Ahdout, Kirkland & Ellis
Daniel Blomberg, counsel at Becket 

When:
Wednesday, January 31, 2018 at 9:00 a.m. Eastern 

Where:
United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
51 SW 1st Ave # 14, Miami, Fla. 33130

Payvand Ahdout will be presenting oral argument on behalf of the Chabad at the hearing. Becket attorney will be available for comment immediately following the hearing.  

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Additional Information:                                              

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win-rate before the United States Supreme Court. For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more here). 

 

 

Mosque wins equal treatment, $3.25 million settlement

WASHINGTON, D.C.– A New Jersey town agreed to treat all houses of worship equally and pay $3.25 million in damages and attorneys’ fees, after a federal court ruled that the town had illegally discriminated against a local mosque. The settlement agreement, signed today, ends lawsuits brought by the United States Department of Justice and the mosque and ensures that all houses of worship in the town will be treated equally.

The Islamic Society of Basking Ridge has been trying to build a permanent house of worship for almost a decade. In 2012, it purchased a four-acre lot zoned for houses of worship and designed a small, unassuming mosque that met every requirement of the local zoning code. But four years and 39 public hearings later, the town denied the mosque a permit—after making up new zoning requirements that had never been applied to any other house of worship. The mosque and the U.S. Department of Justice sued, and a federal court ruled on December 31, 2016, that the town had illegally discriminated against the mosque.

“Our constitution guarantees every religious congregation equal treatment under the law,” said Hannah Smith, senior counsel at Becket, which filed an amicus brief in support of the Islamic Society. “Every religion is a minority in some part of the country. If one religious group can be denied equal treatment because of hostility to their faith, then all religious groups are at risk.”

Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of a diverse coalition of religious, legal, and civil liberties groups—including Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, and others—to defend the mosque’s right to equal treatment (view full coalition list). Becket has defended houses of worship against discriminatory zoning practices across the country – from Jewish synagogues in Florida to Christian churches in California, and almost everything in between.

The mosque was joined in its lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice. To settle the Department of Justice’s lawsuit, the town agreed to amend its zoning ordinance to treat all houses of worship equally.

Becket was joined in its friend-of-the-court brief by Christopher J. Paolella of the New York law firm Reich & Paolella. The Islamic Society of Basking Ridge and Mr. Chaudry are represented by the New York law firm Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win-rate before the United States Supreme Court. For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more here).

Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church v. City of New York

The homeless in New York can always count on Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church to find a place to rest.

For years, the church has welcomed homeless people to sleep on the steps and sidewalk of its property as part of its religious mission. The church also operates a homeless shelter inside its basement, but that space is limited to just ten elderly people. Thirty more homeless individuals regularly sleep outside the church doors. The church has a sign that says “This is God’s House, All are Welcome.” And they mean it.

But in 2001, city officials decided they could no longer tolerate the church’s policy. They roused the homeless people from their sleep and cleared the steps and street. Represented by Sidley Austin Brown & Wood, LLP, the church sued the city for violating their right to put their faith into practice by serving those less fortunate – as protected in our Constitution and by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

In January 2002, a judge ruled that the city could not remove the homeless on the steps of the church, but that they could remove homeless who were on the sidewalk, which the church also owned. Not taking no for an answer, the city appealed.

In March 2002, Becket filed an amicus brief on behalf a number of religious groups, including the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, the Christian Legal Society, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Council of Churches of the City of New York, the General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing, the Queens Federation of Churches, and the Rutgers Presbyterian Church.

In June 2006, the court protected the church, stating that providing homeless with outdoor sleeping space is sincere religious practice, which is protected by the Constitution.

Inmate wins right to kosher meals for Orthodox Jews

WASHINGTON, D.C. – An Orthodox Jewish inmate won a twelve-year legal battle with the state of Texas Friday, voluntarily dropping his lawsuit after convincing the Texas prison system to provide a kosher diet not only to him, but to all Orthodox Jewish inmates in the state. This win is another one of Becket’s victories on behalf of prisoners’ religious liberty, including the 2014 Supreme Court case Holt v. Hobbs.

The vast majority of states provide Jewish inmates with kosher meals, and studies show that allowing prisoners to practice their faith leads to better behavior in prison and fewer crimes after release. Nevertheless, Texas refused to provide Orthodox Jewish inmates with kosher meals, arguing concerns about cost. So in 2005, Max Moussazadeh sued. The court ruled in Moussazadeh’s favor, concluding that the denial of kosher meals violated his faith and that the cost of kosher meals was “minimal”—“less than .005% of the food budget.” The lawsuit prompted Texas to begin offering a kosher diet to all of the state’s Orthodox Jewish inmates.

“Protecting religious freedom in prison is not only smart, but also the right thing to do,” said Luke Goodrich, deputy general counsel at Becket. “Allowing prisoners to practice their faith results in better behavior in prison and less crime after release—and it respects human dignity.”

Although Texas initially resisted Moussazadeh’s lawsuit, he won important victories in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans in 2010 and 2013. After the state began providing a kosher diet for all the state’s Orthodox Jewish inmates, Moussazadeh put the lawsuit on hold until he was released from prison. The suit was finally dismissed on Friday following his release from prison in 2016.

Currently, more than thirty-five states and the federal government provide a kosher diet to observant Jewish inmates. Beckethas also won similar kosher diet cases against Florida and Georgia, and assisted in a similar victory against Indiana. In 2015, Becket won a unanimous Supreme Court victory on behalf of a Muslim prisoner in Arkansas seeking to practice his faith in prison.

“At least thirty-five states and the federal government have been providing a kosher diet for years,” said Goodrich. “They have shown that the benefits of respecting religious freedom are worth far more than a few pennies per meal.”

Mr. Moussazadeh was represented by Becket, along with firm Latham & Watkins, LLP.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win-rate before the United States Supreme Court. For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read morehere).

Second time’s a charm: Synagogue defeats discriminatory lawsuit

Washington, D.C. – For the second time in less than a year, a federal court in Florida rejected a lawsuit and gave a local Jewish congregation a crucial win on the road to building their synagogue, just weeks before Passover.

After a decade of fighting for a house of worship, Jews in Boca Raton have now defeated a hostile attempt to prevent them from building their synagogue. Two local landowners, ignoring unanimous city council approval for the synagogue, filed a lawsuit claiming that allowing the synagogue would discriminate against them as Christians. But the city ordinance explicitly benefits all faith groups, not just the synagogue, and local Christian congregations strongly supported the synagogue.

“After years of patience and perseverance, the Chabad has now removed a big barrier to building a home for their congregation,” said Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel at Becket, which represents the Chabad of East Boca Raton. “It’s sad that some people would rather have a tattoo parlor or a liquor store in their community than a synagogue. Despite ugly anti-religious hostility toward the Chabad, it’s an inspiration to see their undaunted commitment to move forward.”

The Chabad of East Boca Raton is an Orthodox Jewish center that provides religious worship, outreach, and educational services. Since 2007, it has encountered heavy, well-financed opposition to its attempt to build a new center for its growing congregation. After the city unanimously approved the Chabad’s synagogue plan, opposing groups launched a website containing anti-Semitic posts. In fact, the lawsuit against the synagogue admitted that some of the opposition was openly anti-Semitic (though the plaintiffs themselves said that they were not hostile toward Jews).

The Chabad also suffered a string of attacks in the last few years, including the destruction and theft of glass mezuzahs that contain sacred scripture, a smashed synagogue door, and physical assault against a teenage member of the synagogue who was told to “go back to Auschwitz” and that “Hitler was right.”

The court’s opinion today noted that even the landowners admitted that some of the opposition to the Chabad was “motivated by religious animus.” The court ruled that there was no problem with allowing the Chabad to build. To the contrary, the Chabad won because the landowners never “alleg[ed] to have suffered the injuries that the [Constitution] exists to protect against.”  The court sternly reminded the plaintiffs that “not every unfavorable… zoning decision rises to the level of a constitutional violation.”

“This long battle against the synagogue attacks everyone’s religious liberty,” said Blomberg. “Fortunately, the court’s ruling puts that behind us. It’s time to let the Chabad build.”

The Chabad of East Boca Raton, Inc. is represented by Becket, Kirkland & Ellis, and Weiss, Handler & Cornwell.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlawfund.org or 202.349.7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.   

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Becketis a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win-rate before the United States Supreme Court. For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more).

Gagliardi v. The City of Boca Raton, Fla.

Searching for a house of worship

The Chabad of East Boca is an Orthodox Jewish synagogue in Florida that provides religious worship, outreach, and educational services. Like many other faith groups, it needed a house of worship for its congregation. After searching for years, the Chabad finally found the ideal location, took all the necessary steps to build, and—after a long series of public meetings—received unanimous city council approval to move forward in 2015. The approval came under a zoning law passed in 2008 that gave all houses of worship equal rights to build. But a small opposition group, led by a New York attorney, sued in federal court to stop the synagogue from being built.

Opposition fueled by anti-Semitism

Beginning in 2007, the Chabad experienced well-organized and well-financed hostility from a small group. Even after the building was unanimously approved in 2015, two landowners hired a New York attorney—notorious for her opposition to religious civil rights laws—and filed a lawsuit in federal court to prevent the synagogue’s construction. The lawsuit made the bizarre claim that allowing a house of worship equal access to build on private land violated the Constitution’s Establishment Clause.

The small group openly admitted that some other group’s opposition to the Chabad was driven by anti-Semitism. They claimed that allowing the synagogue to be built discriminated against them as Christians—even though the 2008 city ordinance they challenged granted equal access for all faith groups, local Christian congregations supported the synagogue, and they had never been prevented from building a church. They also claimed that building the 2-story synagogue would cause “inevitable” floods and prevent emergency vehicles from accessing the area, even though the area is already surrounded by 22-story condos and strip malls.

In addition to fighting the lawsuit, the Chabad also suffered a string of attacks in the last few years. A teenage member of the synagogue was physically assaulted on a public sidewalk and told to “go back to Auschwitz.” The ministry’s temporary home was also vandalized repeatedly: its glass mezuzahs containing sacred scripture were destroyed and stolen, and a glass synagogue door was smashed.

Winning the right to build

The Chabad twice urged a federal court to reject the lawsuit, and it won both times, first in July 2016 and then again in March 2016. The court went so far as to find that the plaintiffs “fail[ed] to allege any injury at all.” But in April 2017, the plaintiffs prolonged the case by appealing to the Eleventh Circuit. On May 7, 2018, the Eleventh Circuit granted the Chabad its third victory, protecting the Chabad’s right to build a synagogue.

The Chabad was represented by Becket and Kirkland & Ellis.

Importance to religious liberty

  • Property rights: Local governments must treat all houses of worship equally when it comes to property rights, zoning laws, and permit processes. A Jewish synagogue must be afforded the same access to building permits as a Christian church or any other house of worship.
  • Religious communities: Religious communities have the right to operate according to their religious beliefs even if the wider community around them disagrees with those beliefs.

Society of American Bosnians & Herzegovinians v. City of Des Plaines

The Society of American Bosnians and Herzegovinians is a small Muslim community in a Chicago suburb with approximately 160 members that observes a Sufi approach to Islam. For years, the Society attempted to rent facilities for its worship services, but hoped to one day build a mosque in the City of Des Plaines, Illinois, which already has 42 houses of worship.

In 2013, after searching for two years, the Society found a property in a manufacturing district that had stood vacant for many years. The City’s Comprehensive Zoning Plan proposed that the district be rezoned to allow houses of worship, since other religious groups seeking property in the district had similar applications granted.

Studies showed that re-zoning would have minimal impact on parking and traffic, so the City Plan Commission unanimously recommended granting the Society’s application. However, after a public hearing, the Des Plaines City Council denied the re-zoning application, claiming that a mosque would create traffic and parking problems. Unlike its requirements for other religious organizations, the City demanded that the Society provide four times the number of parking spots required by law, which would have forced the Society to reduce its worship space by half. Because the Society was delayed in moving forward with its plans, its contract for the property was terminated.

The Society represented by Anthony J. Peraica & Associates, sued the City for violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal law that protects religious organizations from discrimination in land-use regulation. Becket, joined by Charles Wentworth of the Illinois law firm Lofgren & Wentworth, filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the Society’s right to build a house of worship.

In addition to this case, Becket has supported or is currently supporting a mosque in New Jersey and has also previously invoked RLUIPA in defending a Christian agricultural community in Hawaii, a Sikh temple and a Jewish synagogue in California, a Buddhist temple in Connecticut, and churches in Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

Moussazadeh v. Texas Department of Criminal Justice

Prisoners are people too

Prisoners lose many of their physical rights when they enter prison, but they do not lose their dignity. They may be unpopular, but they still have human rights.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act (RLUIPA) was established to protect those rights. Congress unanimously passed RLUIPA in 2000 because prison bureaucrats around the country were arbitrarily banning Bible studies, confiscating sacred texts, denying access to the sacraments, and prohibiting religious diets to prisoners. These arbitrary bans not only undermined the rehabilitation of prisoners, but also stripped them of their dignity by denying their right to seek God.

A Texas-sized denial of dignity

Max Moussazadeh is an Orthodox Jew who was imprisoned in Texas and denied kosher meals. In October 2005, Becket sued the State of Texas on Mr. Moussazedeh’s behalf, arguing that the state was arbitrarily denying Mr. Moussazadeh’s religious freedom in violation of RLUIPA. The vast majority of prison systems across the U.S. provide Jewish prisoners with kosher meals, and have done so for many years. Texas could do so at a cost of less than 0.02% of the prison system’s annual food budget.

Victory and freedom

Thanks to Becket’s and Latham & Watkins’ lawsuit — which lasted twelve years and included two victories at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit — the Texas prison system established a kosher diet plan and began providing Mr. Moussazadeh and all Orthodox Jewish inmates with kosher meals. Mr. Moussazadeh then put his lawsuit on hold, and ultimately dropped the lawsuit in 2017 after being released from prison.

Becket has also brought successful kosher meal cases against the states of Florida and Georgia, and assisted in a similar victory against Indiana. In 2015, it won a unanimous Supreme Court victory in Holt v. Hobbs, a landmark case protecting the right of all prisoners to peacefully practice their faith.

 

Islamic Society of Basking Ridge v. Township of Bernards

A suburban New Jersey town denied a small Muslim congregation the right to build a new mosque where it could meet to worship. So the congregation went to court.

A small mosque with a big dream

Mohammad Ali Chaudry is a Pakistani immigrant who has lived with his family in Basking Ridge, New Jersey for nearly 40 years. Chaudry, who has a Ph.D. in economics from Tufts University and is a retired AT&T executive, has a long history of community engagement, including serving on the town’s board of education and as mayor from 2004 to 2007. He is also the founding and current president of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, a small Muslim congregation.

In 2008, Chaudry began looking for property to build a larger space to hold the Society’s prayer meetings and Sunday school for children. A few years later, Chaudry purchased a 4-acre site zoned for houses of worship and began planning construction. The small, unassuming mosque was designed to fit in with the residential neighborhood, without a traditional dome and with discrete minarets that looked like chimneys.

Red tape discrimination from the town board

In 2012, after the Society filed its application for a permit with the Township’s Planning Board, what ensued was four years of local bureaucratic quagmire. The Board held a record 39 public hearings during which time the Society faced hostility and vandalism from members of the local community.

The Society’s application met every requirement from the Township Planning Board, but the goal posts kept changing. For example, the 150-congregant mosque was required by local ordinance to have 50 parking spaces—the same amount required for churches and synagogues of the same size. But local bureaucrats changed the rules to require more than double that amount of parking for the mosque.

In January 2016, the application to build the mosque was ultimately denied.

Becket defends the right to worship

In March 2016, represented by Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP,  the Society sued the town for violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the First and Fourteenth Amendments. In May 2016, the Society asked the court to rule in its favor.

Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the mosque, which was signed by a diverse coalition including the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Becket, Center for Islam and Religious Freedom, Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, Interfaith Coalition on Mosques, International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Muslim Bar Association of New York, National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, National Association of Evangelicals, New Jersey Muslim Lawyers Association, Queens Federation of Churches, Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Sikh Coalition, South Asian Bar Association of New Jersey, South Asian Bar Association of New York, and Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of New Jersey.

On November 22, 2016 the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the Township of Bernards over the denial of zoning approval for the mosque. On December 31, 2016, the court ruled in favor of the mosque’s right to build.

In May 2017, the Township settled the lawsuits, agreeing to treat all houses of worship equally.

Holt v. Hobbs

Protecting religious expression for prisoners is important, see why:

Religious freedom restricted for prisoners in “unnecessary ways”

Nearly two decades ago, Congress found that government bureaucrats routinely trample on religious liberty in prison. As the joint statement of Senators Hatch (R-UT) and Kennedy (D-MA) put it: “Whether from indifference, ignorance, bigotry, or lack of resources, some institutions restrict religious liberty in egregious and unnecessary ways.”

These religious liberty restrictions affected people of many faiths. Many prisons barred Jewish inmates from wearing yarmulkes, denied Catholics access to the sacraments of communion and confession, and shut down Evangelical Bible studies. Many prisons also banned religious diets such as kosher food, confiscated and destroyed sacred texts, such as the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, and often banned religious objects, such as rosaries, prayer shawls, and yarmulkes. One prison prohibited various religious holidays, restricting prisoners’ ability to fast, pray, and worship God on special occasions. And in one extreme instance, prison officials violated the seal of the confessional by bugging inmates’ confessions to their priests.

Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA)

In response to these and many other displays of religious suppression, an overwhelmingly bipartisan Congress enacted a landmark civil rights statute, which was signed by President Clinton in 2000: the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

RLUIPA embodies a very simple principle: Prison officials should not impose egregious and unnecessary restrictions on religious liberty. Of course, prisoners lose many of their physical rights when they enter prison, but they cannot be forced to surrender peaceful expressions of their humanity due to the arbitrary whims of prison officials. Just as the Constitution prevents dehumanizing forms of cruel and unusual punishment, RLUIPA prevents stubborn bureaucrats from stripping inmates of human dignity by denying them the ability to seek God.

Despite RLUIPA, prisoners still face religious liberty violations

Despite the promise of RLUIPA, some inmates still experience persecution for peaceful displays of religious devotion. In June 2011, Abdul Muhammad, an inmate in an Arkansas state prison, sued in federal court for the right to wear a beard in accordance with religious beliefs. The Arkansas prison had denied Mr. Muhammad’s request to grow the ½ inch beard his Muslim faith commands, citing security and safety concerns, even though Arkansas already allowed inmates to grow beards for medical reasons, and even though Mr. Muhammad’s ½ inch beard would be permissible in 44 state and federal prison systems across the country.

Representing himself, Mr. Muhammad lost in federal trial court and in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis. He then submitted a handwritten petition for an injunction to the Supreme Court. On March 3, 2014, the Supreme Court granted his petition and said that it would hear his appeal in full.

Unanimous victory at the Supreme Court

Becket and Professor Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia School of Law stepped in to represent Mr. Muhammad at the Supreme Court. On January 2015, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Mr. Muhammad, saying Arkansas had clearly put Mr. Muhammad in an impossible choice: to violate his beliefs or suffering disciplinary sanctions. The Court rejected Arkansas’s defenses, pointing out that because so many other states were able to accommodate inmates required to grow a beard for both medical and religious reasons, Arkansas had to explain why its situation was different.

Becket has long defended prisoners’ religious liberty, including protecting prisoners’ rights to kosher diets in Florida, Georgia, and Texas. Defending prisoners from arbitrary restrictions on their religious freedom strengthens religious liberty for all.

Importance to religious liberty

  • Individual freedom: Individual religious freedom encompasses more than just thought or contemplation—it involves action. Individuals must be free to follow their religious convictions into practice, including when they are incarcerated.
  • RLUIPA: Like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was passed with bipartisan support. RLUIPA ensures religious liberty in two areas where it is most vulnerable: land use and prisons.

For the in-depth story, listen to the Stream of Conscience podcast episode about this case, Conviction and Confinement.

Another Victory for religious diets in prison

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today marks the sixth time in three years that federal courts have ruled that the Florida Department of Corrections must provide religiously appropriate meals to prisoners. Until now, the Department remained the only large prison system that offered a variety of diets to prisoners for medical reasons but refused to offer them for religious reasons. 

“Studies show that when prisoners are allowed to practice their faith, it reduces violence in prison and reduces rates of recidivism outside of prison,” said Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel of Becket. “Treating prisoners humanely by protecting their religious liberty isn’t only the right thing to do. It is also good for prisoners, good for prisons, and good for society as a whole.”

Thirty-five states and the federal government already provide religious diets. The Department argued that it would be too expensive to do so, but it relied on inflated estimates that were over fifty times more expensive than comparable prison systems.  The Department’s true cost for providing religious diets—only about $1.50 more per day per prisoner than standard meals—is less than 0.02 percent of its multi-billion-dollar annual budget.

Becket, which has successfully represented or supported religious prisoners in Georgia, Texas, Indiana, and in past Florida cases, has never lost a case concerning a prison system’s denial of religious diets.

“When many faithful prisoners are denied a religious diet, they don’t eat food that violates their faith. They go hungry,” said Blomberg. “Today the court upheld the inherent dignity and rights of every person, especially prisoners.”

On April 22, 2016, Becket filed an amicus brief urging the protection of the inmate’s religious rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket  attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org  or 202-349-7224.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win-rate before the United States Supreme Court.For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians  (read more here).

Kosher meals finally on the menu in Fla. prisons

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Just two days after hearing oral argument, a federal court—relying heavily on Becket Supreme Court victories – ruled late yesterday that the Florida Department of Corrections must allow Jewish prisoners to practice their faith by providing them with kosher meals. Thirty-five states and the federal government already provide kosher diets for prisoners.

Before the court’s ruling, Florida’s Department of Corrections was the only large prison system in the country that insisted it should remain free to refuse to provide kosher meals to observant Jewish prisoners, despite the fact that it already offers a variety of expensive medical diets for its prisoners.

“This is a huge win for Florida’s Jewish prisoners and for every American, because it supports the right to practice faith out of reach of government bureaucrats,” said Diana Verm, legal counsel for Becket, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case. “Today, Jewish prisoners in Florida won’t have to go hungry because earlier courts protected the rights of Muslims prisoners to wear beards and Christian families to run their businesses without abandoning their faith.”

Relying on several Becket cases in its opinion, including two Supreme Court cases Holt v. Hobbs and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Court stated that the Department of Corrections must lose because it “fail[ed] to explain why the Department cannot offer kosher meals when the Federal Bureau of Prisons and other states do so”  and “failed to do more than ‘simply utter the magic word “costs.”’” The Court recognized that the Department’s “costs” argument was “but another formulation of the ‘classic rejoinder of bureaucrats throughout history: If I make an exception for you, I’ll have to make one for everybody, so no exceptions.’”

Thirty-five states and the federal government have all managed to balance their budgets while still protecting religious liberty. Indeed, Becket, which has successfully represented or supported Jewish prisoners in Georgia, Texas, Indiana, and in past Florida cases, has never lost a case concerning a prison system’s denial of kosher meals. And here, the cost of providing kosher meals—only about $1.50 more per day per prisoner than standard meals—is estimated to be less than 0.02 percent of the Department’s multi-billion-dollar annual budget.

“When prisoners are allowed to practice their faith, the rate of recidivism drops dramatically, violent incidents are less frequent in prisons, and prisoners maintain their human dignity. As the majority of other states have learned, paying $1.50 a day for kosher meals is well worth the value to prisons and society overall,” said Verm.

Oral argument was heard on Tuesday, July 12. Last year, a federal district court ordered the Department to begin providing kosher meals for all observant Jewish inmates, and Florida appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. In March, Becket filed an amicus brief urging the protection of the religious rights of all prisoners. This lawsuit is the first time the U.S. government sued a state prison system under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). Throughout the litigation, a diverse array of religious groups have supported kosher meals for Jewish prisoners, including Christians and Hindus.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket  attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at  media@becketlaw.org or 2023497224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditionsand has a 100% win-rate before the United StatesSupreme Court.For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more).

Federal Government urges Florida to provide kosher meals

Washington, D.C. – Moments ago, the federal government argued to protect Jewish prisoners’ right to worship from Florida bureaucrats, who currently deny kosher meals to Jewish prisoners.

The clear majority of state prisons and the federal government have provided observant Jewish prisoners with kosher meals for many years. Yet Florida’s Department of Corrections is the only large prison system in the country that refuses to provide kosher meals to observant Jewish prisoners, despite the fact that it already offers a variety of more expensive medical diets for its prisoners. The state also ignores the extensive data that shows prisoners allowed to practice their faith while in jail are much less likely to reoffend.

“When prisons refuse to provide kosher meals, many Jewish prisoners don’t eat non-kosher food; they go hungry,” said Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel of Becket, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case. “That’s unnecessary, and it’s wrong. Prisoners surrender many of their physical rights at the jailhouse door, but they do not surrender their human dignity.”

The Department claims that providing kosher meals would be too expensive. But the cost of providing kosher meals is less than 0.02 percent of the Department’s annual budget. Further, 35 states and the federal government have all managed to balance their budgets while still protecting religious liberty. The Department has offered no reason why it cannot do the same. And studies show that ensuring prisoners can fully practice their faith reduces both violence in prison and repeat crime outside of prison.

“Allowing prisoners to practice their faith is better for them, better for prisons, and better for society. In other contexts, including within prisons, Florida has successfully defended religious liberty for all. It should do the same here and give up this misguided opposition to kosher diets,” said Blomberg.

Last year, a federal district court ordered the Department to begin providing kosher meals for all observant Jewish inmates, and Florida appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. In March, Becket filed an amicus brief urging the protection of the religious rights of all prisoners. This lawsuit is the first time the U.S. government is suing a state prison system under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). Throughout the litigation, a diverse array of religious groups have supported kosher meals for Jewish prisoners, including Christians and Hindus.

A Becket attorney is available for comment at the courthouse immediately following the hearing.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket  attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at  media@becketlaw.org  or 202.349.7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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Becket  is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditionsand has a 100% win-rate before the United StatesSupreme Court.For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more).

Florida faces heat over denial of kosher meals


WASHINGTON
, D.C. – Tomorrow, the federal government will argue that Florida cannot continue denying kosher meals to Jewish prisoners, especially since the vast majority of state prisons and the federal government have provided such meals for many years. Florida claims that providing kosher meals would be too expensive—even though the estimated cost of providing such meals is less than 0.02 percent of its annual budget, and even though studies show that allowing prisoners to practice their faith reduces both violence in prison and repeat crime outside of prison.

Florida is the only large prison system in the country that still insists on denying kosher meals to observant Jewish prisoners, despite the fact that it already provides a variety of more expensive, specialized diets for medical needs of its prisoners. Last year, a federal district court ordered Florida to begin providing kosher meals for all observant Jewish inmates, and Florida appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. In March, Becket filed an amicus brief urging the protection of the religious rights of all prisoners. This lawsuit is the first time the U.S. government is suing a state prison system under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

What:
Oral Argument in U.S. v. Florida Department of Corrections

Who:
Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel of amicus Becket

When:
Tuesday, July 12, 2016 at 9:00 a.m. EST

Where:
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
99 N.E. 4th Street Miami, Florida 33132

Becket attorneys will be available for comment immediately following the hearing.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket  attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at  media@becketlaw.org  or 202-349-7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Additional Information:

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditionsand has a 100% win-rate before the United StatesSupreme Court.For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians  (read more).

 

Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus defend New Jersey mosque

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Nearly 20 diverse civil rights and religious groups today asked a court to support a community of Muslims in New Jersey who have been trying to build a house of worship for almost a decade (view full coalition list). The mosque met every requirement by the local zoning board and was designed to look like a house to blend in with the surrounding neighborhood. But due to local hostility toward Muslims, the permit was denied.

“I came to America almost fifty years ago with a firm belief in the values that America represents, including freedom of religion and equality before the law,” said Mohammad Ali Chaudry, the founding and current president of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge. “This mosque is part of my American dream. We are overwhelmed by this extraordinary support from so many diverse groups all supporting our position and affirming that Muslims too have the right to worship in Bernards Township.”

Dr. Chaudry is a Pakistani immigrant who has lived with his family in Basking Ridge for nearly 40 years. He has a Ph.D. in economics from Tufts University and is a retired AT&T executive. He has a long history of community engagement, including serving on the town’s board of education and as mayor from 2004 to 2007.

In 2008, Dr. Chaudry began looking for property to build a larger space to hold the Society’s prayer meetings and Sunday school for children. A few years later, Chaudry purchased a 4-acre site zoned for houses of worship and began planning construction. The small, unassuming mosque was designed to fit in with the residential neighborhood, without a traditional dome and with discrete minarets that looked like chimneys. But after the Society filed its application for a permit, what ensued was four years of local bureaucratic quagmire. The Board held a record 39 public hearings during which time the Society faced hostility and vandalism from members of the local community.

“It is a gross misuse of power by the local Planning Board to deny this house of worship simply because it is a mosque,” said Hannah Smith, senior counsel of Becket, which filed an amicus brief in support of the Islamic Society. “The town cannot arbitrarily apply different standards to any religious group, be they Jews, Native Americans, Catholics or Muslims, merely because local protesters disapprove of religious beliefs that are new or different.”

In March 2016, the Society sued the town for violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Becket’s amicus brief was joined by a diverse coalition including the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Center for Islam and Religious Freedom, Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, Interfaith Coalition on Mosques, International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Muslim Bar Association of New York, National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, National Association of Evangelicals, New Jersey Muslim Lawyers Association, Queens Federation of Churches, Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Sikh Coalition, South Asian Bar Association of New Jersey, South Asian Bar Association of New York, and Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of New Jersey.

Becket was joined by Christopher J. Paolella of the New York law firm Reich & Paolella and Asma Uddin of the Center for Islam and Religious Freedom. The Islamic Society of Basking Ridge and Mr. Chaudry are represented by Adeel A. Mangi of the New York law firm Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win-rate before the United States Supreme Court. For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more).

Becket defends Jewish prisoners in Florida seeking kosher meals

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In a friend-of-the-court brief filed today, Becket argued that federal law compels Florida to provide kosher meals to Jewish prisoners. Florida is the only large prison system in the country that still wants to force Jewish prisoners to eat non-kosher food.

“Prisoners surrender many of their physical rights at the jailhouse door, but they do not surrender the fundamental right of conscience,” said Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel at Becket. “Every large prison system in the country provides kosher meals to Jewish prisoners; it is past time for Florida to do the same.”

Florida claims that providing kosher meals is too expensive to be required by federal law. However, at least 35 states and the federal government provide prisoners with kosher meals while remaining within their budgets. Florida also provides a variety of more expensive, specialized diets to meet the medical needs of its prisoners.

Becket has sued Florida over the denial of kosher meals twice—first in 2002, then in 2012. Both times it received a favorable result on behalf of one observant prisoner. This latest lawsuit was filed by the United States on behalf of all observant prisoners. A federal district court ordered Florida to begin providing kosher meals for all observant inmates last year, and Florida has appealed. Today Becket, represented by the global law firm Jones Day, filed an amicus brief urging the protection of the religious rights of all prisoners.

“Protecting religious freedom in prison reduces prison violence and makes prisoners less likely to commit crimes after their release,” said Goodrich. “Forcing Jewish prisoners to violate the centuries-old commands of their faith is the height of bureaucratic foolishness.”

In addition to its successful suits against Florida, Becket has won kosher meal cases against Georgia and Texas, and has assisted in a similar victory against Indiana. Becket has never lost a case when suing a prison system over the denial of kosher meals.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket  attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at  media@becketlaw.org  or 202.349.7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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Becket  is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditionsand has a 100% win-rate before the United StatesSupreme Court.For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including  Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more).

Anglican Church Wins Victory For Religious Communities

Washington, D.C. – Last night, on behalf of a Florida-based Anglican Church, Becket won an important victory reaffirming the rights of religious communities everywhere seeking to build new places of worship.

“Under federal law, churches must be treated on equal terms with other community groups, no worse than the local rotary, school, or movie theater,” said Senior Counsel Hannah Smith of Becket. “If religious freedom means anything, it means being able to grow a community of believers in a permanent physical space suitable for the congregation’s needs.”

In 2013, the Church of Our Savior, an Anglican community located in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, applied for permits to build a new, permanent church to accommodate its growing numbers, but its application was twice denied.

After several years of seeking a place to worship, the Church of Our Savior can now build a new permanent home on Beach Boulevard. The settlement follows a ruling in favor of the church by a Florida district court in 2014. The court held that the church had suffered a violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal civil-rights law designed to protect houses of worship from discrimination. Following the settlement agreement and the court’s orders, the church now has the right to proceed with construction.

“We are so thankful to finally be free to build a house of worship in the place we believe God has called us. We are blessed to have had Becket come alongside us in our time of need,” said Reverend David Ball, pastor of the church.

The Church of Our Savior was represented by Daniel Dalton of Dalton & Tomich, Charles Stambaugh of Stambaugh & Associates, and Hannah Smith and Luke Goodrich of Becket. Mr. Dalton and Mr. Stambaugh guided the church through the successful trial and favorable settlement. Becket led litigation at the Eleventh Circuit.

Becket is widely recognized as one of the nation’s leading law firms handling land-use litigation under RLUIPA. Becket successfully represented the plaintiffs in the first case resolved under RLUIPA, Haven Shores Community Church v. City of Grand Haven. Successful RLUIPA land use appeals include Elijah Group, Inc. v. City of Leon Valley, Rocky Mountain Christian Church v. Bd. of Cnty. Comm’rs, Lighthouse Inst. for Evangelism v. City of Long Branch, and Elsinore Christian Center v. City of Lake Elsinore.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202.349.7224.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include three major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 rulings in Holt v. Hobbs and Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, the latter of which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half-century.”

Ruling Forces Arkansas to Recognize Religious Rights

Washington, D.C. – After a scathing Supreme Court decision against the state of Arkansas for not respecting religious freedom, last Thursday a federal district court issued a permanent injunction against the state. Arkansas state agreed to the injunction, which requires the state to allow a prisoner to grow a religiously-mandated beard. Arkansas also changed its religious beard policy to align with the majority of state prison systems. In the Supreme Court decision, Holt v. Hobbs, Justices clearly stated that the government cannot refuse to protect religious freedom on “prison officials’ mere say-so.”

“The Supreme Court decision protects the rights not only of prisoners but of all Americans,” said Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel of Becket. “When we protect the rights of one religious person, we protect all American citizens, religious and non-religious alike.”

Under the settlement approved, Arkansas agreed to a permanent injunction, guaranteeing Mr. Abdul Muhammad’s right to wear a beard. The state also agreed to pay the attorneys’ fees of Douglas Laycock, professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, and Becket, who represent Mr. Muhammad.

“Arkansas did this to itself. It should have done the right thing in the first place. Instead, it spent untold amounts of taxpayer money and state resources fighting against religious rights,” said Rassbach.

In January the Supreme Court ruled that Mr. Muhammad has the right to peacefully wear a half-inch beard in accordance with his Muslim faith after the State of Arkansas failed to show that it had a compelling interest to ban beards. Currently more than 43 state, federal, and local prison systems allow beards, and because Arkansas has long allowed beards for medical reasons, the Court held that Arkansas could not discriminate based on an inmate’s religious beliefs.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at  media@becketlaw.org or 202.349.7224. 

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include three major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 rulings in Holt v. Hobbs and Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, the latter of which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

 

Court Victory for Kosher Meals in Florida Prisons

Washington, D.C. – After spending over a decade arbitrarily trying to deny kosher meals to religious prisoners, the Florida Department of Corrections was ordered by a federal court to provide them. The court, which issued its opinion on April 30, also rejected Florida’s weak arguments regarding budgetary concerns, noting that most major prison systems already offer the meals, and told Florida that it had failed to present any evidence that its prison system was different than any other.

“Federal law protects all Americans from arbitrary restrictions of their religious practice. This includes prisoners,” said Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel of Becket. “Today, there is one less arbitrary restriction on religious freedom.”

The court opinion relied heavily on previous Becket victories, including Rich v. Buss, Moussazadeh v. TDCJ, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling just three months ago in Holt v. Hobbs.

“Prisoners lose many of their physical rights at the jailhouse door, but they do not lose their basic right of conscience,” said Goodrich. “Florida’s own research has shown that protecting religious freedom for prisoners reduces prison violence and saves taxpayers money.”

Becket has sued the state of Florida over its denial of a kosher diet for religiously observant inmates twice—first in 2002, then in 2012. Both times it received a favorable result on behalf of a Jewish prisoner. This latest lawsuit was filed by the United States Department of Justice on behalf of all observant prisoners. In addition to its successful suits against Florida, Becket has won kosher diet cases against Georgia and Texas, and has assisted in a similar victory against Indiana. Becket has never lost a case when suing a prison system over the denial of a kosher diet.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at  media@becketlaw.org or 202.349.7224.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include three major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 rulings in Holt v. Hobbs and Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, the latter of which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

Prisoner beards and religious freedoms — what a recent Supreme Court decision means for you

By Hannah Smith, Senior Counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

Late last month, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a unanimous victory for religious freedom in Holt v. Hobbs. It held that a federal civil rights statute requires prison officials to accommodate peaceful expressions of religious devotion, an issue arising from a dispute between a bearded Muslim inmate (named Holt) and the Arkansas Department of Correction. Because the same statute also happens to protect the land-use needs of religious organizations, the circle of winners from the court’s endorsement of the statute’s power extends well beyond a prison’s walls.

Continue reading “Prisoner beards and religious freedoms — what a recent Supreme Court decision means for you”

9-0 Supreme Court Victory for Religious Liberty

Washington, DC – In a unanimous 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court ruled today that prison officials cannot arbitrarily ban peaceful religious practices, securing a landmark victory for religious freedom for all faiths. (see video here).

“No religion is an island,” said Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel for Becket for Religious Liberty representing the plaintiff Abdul Muhammad in this case. “This is not just a win for one prisoner in Arkansas, but a win for all Americans who value religious liberty.”

In the case of Holt v. Hobbs, the Court ruled that Mr. Muhammad has the right to peacefully wear a half-inch beard in accordance with his Muslim faith after the State of Arkansas failed to show that it had a compelling interest in banning beards. In light of the fact that more than 43 state, federal, and local prison systems allow beards, and because Arkansas has long allowed beards for medical reasons (see infographic), the Court held that Arkansas could not rely on mere assertions.

The Court said that the law does not permit “unquestioning deference” to prison officials, and that lower courts had wrongly “deferred to [Arkansas] prison officials’ mere say-so.”

The Supreme Court heard the case of Holt v. Hobbs on October 7. At issue was whether the Arkansas prison system’s refusal to allow the peaceful wearing of a half-inch beard violates a federal civil rights law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

“The Court repeated a fundamental American principle today: government doesn’t get to ride roughshod over religious practices,” said Rassbach. “Where government can accommodate religion, it ought to. What’s more, the Court’s unanimous decision today, and the broad-based support among such diverse groups in this case, shows that religious liberty remains one of the central ideals of America that unifies us as a nation.”

A broad range of groups supported Becket’s client, including the United States Government, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Orthodox Union, Sikhs, Hindus and many other religious and civil rights groups.

On June 28, 2011, Mr. Muhammad, representing himself, filed a lawsuit seeking the ability to wear a half-inch beard in accordance with his faith. After losing in federal trial court and in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, he then submitted a handwritten petition for an injunction to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear his appeal in full. Mr. Muhammad is represented in this case by Professor Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia School of Law and Becket.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include two major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 ruling in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

 

Additional Quotes

The following can be attributed to Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel for Becket, and co-counsel in this case:

This is a huge win for religious freedom and for all Americans. More than 43 prison systems across the country allow prisoners to grow a half-inch beard, and at least 41 prison systems would allow an even longer beard. What the Supreme Court said today was that government officials cannot impose arbitrary restrictions on religious liberty just because they think government knows best.

This is a victory not just for one prisoner in Arkansas, but for every American who believes and wants the freedom to act on those beliefs.

Why religious freedom for prisoners matters

The Hill October 7, 2014

The Supreme Court will today consider its newest religious freedom case, in which the question is whether a Muslim prisoner should be allowed to grow a half-inch beard. But the case also raises a simpler question: Why should anyone care?

Read the full article here.

U.S. Supreme Court Hears Prisoner’s Religious Liberty Case

Washington, D.C. – Can prisons ban peaceful religious expression? That was the question before the U.S. Supreme Court this morning as the justices heard oral argument in Holt v. Hobbs.

At issue is whether the Arkansas prison system’s refusal to allow the peaceful wearing of a half-inch beard violates a federal civil rights law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

“Arkansas already allows inmates to grow beards for medical reasons, and a half-inch beard is permissible in over 40 state and federal prison systems,” said Hannah Smith, Senior Counsel for Becket representing Mr. Muhammad. “This is precisely the kind of religious exercise Congress meant to protect when it passed RLUIPA.”

A broad range of groups support Becket’s client, including the U.S. Government, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Orthodox Union, Sikhs, Hindus and other religious and civil rights groups.

“The broad-based support among such diverse groups in this case shows that religious liberty remains one of the unifying ideals of America,” said Smith. “Under federal law, prison officials cannot impose unnecessary restrictions on religious liberty. While prisoners do surrender many rights at the jailhouse door, they do not surrender the fundamental right of conscience.”

On June 28, 2011, Mr. Muhammad, representing himself, filed a lawsuit seeking the ability to wear a half-inch beard in accordance with his faith. After losing in federal trial court and in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, he then submitted a handwritten petition for an injunction to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear his appeal in full. Today Mr. Muhammad was represented by Professor Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia School of Law and Becket.

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include two major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 ruling in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

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For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys handling this case, please contact  Melinda Skea, media@becketlaw.org, 202.349.7224.

Media Advisory: Supreme Court Hearing for Prisoner Religious Liberty Case Set for October 7

Washington, D.C.The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral argument in the landmark prisoner religious liberty case of Holt v. Hobbs on October 7, 2014 at 10:00 a.m. EST (see video). Professor Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia School of Law and Becket for Religious Liberty represent Mr. Abdul Muhammad, an Arkansas inmate who has been denied the ability to grow a half-inch beard in accordance with his Muslim faith. At issue is whether the state prison system’s refusal to allow Mr. Muhammad’s peaceful religious expression violates a federal civil rights law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

Who:
Professor Douglas Laycock, University of Virginia School of Law and Hannah Smith, Senior Counsel for Becket

What:
Oral Argument for Holt v. Hobbs (see video)

When:
October 7, 2014 at 10:00 a.m.

Where:
The U.S. Supreme Court, 1 First St NE, Washington, DC 20543

Becket attorneys will be available for comment immediately following the argument outside the Supreme Court.  For more information or to arrange an interview with an attorney, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202.349.7224.

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include two major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 ruling in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

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Mosque Wins Right to Meet, Drops Lawsuit

Washington D.C. – Today, in a significant victory for religious freedom, a Tennessee mosque voluntarily dropped its lawsuit after winning the right to meet at its newly built mosque. This puts an end to the two-year-old legal dispute over the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, which has been represented by Becket.

“We are delighted that the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro can put this dispute behind it and is now free to meet,” said Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel at Becket. “Today is a triumph for religious liberty and for people of all faiths. No house of worship should be kept from meeting just because a handful of neighbors dislike their religious beliefs.”

The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro has been part of the Murfreesboro community for over thirty years. In 2010, the Islamic Center began building a new mosque to accommodate its growing congregation. Unfortunately, its efforts were met with hostile protests from a small group of local residents who claimed that the congregation was threatening solely because of its Muslim religious beliefs. Hostility toward the mosque culminated in acts of vandalism, arson, and even a bomb threat, which resulted in a federal indictment.

In June 2012, opponents of the mosque sued Rutherford County, alleging that the County should not have given approval for construction of the mosque. A local Chancery Court judge ruled in favor of the mosque opponents, concluding that county approval of the mosque was subject to a heightened legal standard when compared with other houses of worship, due to the “tremendous public interest” surrounding the mosque.

In July 2012, Becket filed a separate lawsuit on behalf of the mosque in Nashville federal court, arguing that subjecting the Murfreesboro mosque to a different legal standard than a Christian church violated the federal Constitution and civil rights laws. The case was heard the day before the start of Ramadan—the holiest month in the Muslim calendar—and Chief Judge Todd Campbell issued a temporary restraining order requiring the County to conduct the inspection process and grant a certificate of occupancy for the mosque as it would for any other house of worship.In support of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, over 100 religious leaders from a wide variety of faith traditions signed an open letter  calling for equal treatment of the mosque. And on August 10, 2012, the mosque was able to use its new building for the first time.

Ultimately, Rutherford County appealed the initial decision from the Chancery Court, and the Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled in the county’s favor, concluding that approval of the mosque was appropriate. The Tennessee Supreme Court declined to review the case, and the U.S. Supreme Court did the same.With all of the state-court lawsuits fully dismissed, all parties agreed that the mosque’s 2012 lawsuit was now moot and could be voluntarily dismissed. The federal court dismissed the suit today.

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. For over 20 years, it has defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Its recent cases include two major Supreme Court victories: the landmark ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and the 9-0 ruling in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at  media@becketlaw.org or call 202.349.7224.

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Supreme Court Rejects Attempt to Shut Down Mosque

Washington D.C.Today, in a significant victory for religious freedom, the Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit attempting to shut down a Tennessee mosque, ending a two-year-old legal fight. The ruling preserves an earlier victory gained by Becket, and ensures that the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro is free to continue meeting at its newly built mosque.

“Today marks a triumph not just for the Muslims of Murfreesboro, but for people of all faiths. No house of worship should be kept from meeting just because the neighbors dislike their religious beliefs,” said Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel at Becket.

The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro has been part of the Murfreesboro community for over thirty years. In 2010, the Islamic Center began building a new mosque to accommodate its growing congregation. Unfortunately, its efforts were met with hostile protests from a small group of local residents who claimed that the congregation was threatening solely because of its Muslim religious beliefs. Hostility toward the mosque culminated in acts of vandalism, arson, and even a bomb threat, which resulted in a federal indictment.In June 2012, opponents of the mosque sued Rutherford County, alleging that the County should not have given approval for construction of the mosque. A local Chancery Court judge ruled in favor of the mosque opponents, concluding that county approval of the mosque was subject to a heightened legal standard when compared with other houses of worship, due to the “tremendous public interest” surrounding the mosque.

In July 2012, Becket filed a separate lawsuit on behalf of the mosque in federal court, arguing that subjecting the Murfreesboro mosque to a different legal standard than a Christian church violated the federal Constitution and civil rights laws. The case was heard the day before the start of Ramadan—the holiest month in the Muslim calendar—and Chief Judge Todd Campbell issued a temporary restraining order requiring the County to conduct the inspection process and grant a certificate of occupancy for the mosque as it would for any other house of worship.In support of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, over 100 religious leaders from a wide variety of faith traditions signed an open letter  calling for equal treatment of the mosque. And on August 10, 2012, the mosque was able to use its new building for the first time. Ultimately, Rutherford County appealed the initial decision from the Chancery Court, and the Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled in the county’s favor, concluding that approval of the mosque was appropriate. The Tennessee Supreme Court declined to review the case, and today the U.S. Supreme Court did the same, putting an end to the attempt to shut down the mosque.

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions—from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For 18 years itsattorneys have been recognized as experts in the field of church-state law. Becket recently won a 9-0 victory inHosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, whichThe Wall Street Journalcalled one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”    For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at  media@becketlaw.org or call 202.349.7224.

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Diverse Religious, Civil Rights Groups Join Forces to Protect Prisoner Religious Liberty at the Supreme Court

Washington D.C.More than 50 groups, including religious denominations, the American Civil Liberties Union, other civil rights groups, as well as prison security experts, are submitting friend-of-the-court briefs to the United States Supreme Court in support of Abdul Muhammad, an Arkansas inmate who has been denied the ability to grow a half-inch beard in accordance with his Muslim faith.

Becket and Professor Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia School of Law represent Mr. Muhammad in Holt v. Hobbs, No. 13-6827, which will be argued to the Court in the fall. Submission of friend-of-the-court briefs is expected to take place today and conclude at midnight tonight.At issue is whether the Arkansas prison system’s refusal to allow Mr. Muhammad’s peaceful wearing of a half-inch beard violates a federal civil rights law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

“The across-the-board support for Mr. Muhammad shows that religious liberty remains one of the bedrock ideals of America,” said Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel for Becket. “Whether we treat prisoners with basic human dignity—including the freedom to seek God—speaks volumes about who we are as a Nation.”

In 2000, President Clinton signed RLUIPA with unanimous Congressional support to stop arbitrary restrictions on prisoners’ religious practices, promote prison security, and lower recidivism rates. That broad-based support is reflected in the filings today, which include Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Sikh, and Hindu religious organizations, as well as civil rights organizations, former prisoners, former prison wardens, and prison security experts. Among those filing are the Nation’s Catholic bishops, the ACLU, Orthodox Jewish organizations such as Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel, the Anti-Defamation League, the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Missions Board, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and the Women’s Prison Association.

“Over 40 state and federal prison systems would allow Mr. Muhammad’s beard,” stated Rassbach. “And if they can do it Arkansas can, too. That’s especially the case since Arkansas already allows beards for medical reasons.”

On June 28, 2011, Mr. Muhammad, representing himself, filed a lawsuit seeking the ability to wear a half-inch beard in accordance with his faith. Mr. Muhammad lost in federal trial court and in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis. He then  submitted a handwritten petition  for an injunction to the Supreme Court. Justice Alito read the petition and sent it to the entire Court for decision, and the Court granted the petition. On March 3, 2014, the Supreme Court said that it would hear his appeal in full. Oral argument is expected in October or November 2014. Becket filed Mr. Muhammad’s opening brief on May 22.

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions—from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For20years its attorneys have been recognized as experts in the field of church-state law. Becket recently won a 9-0 victory in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”    For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at  media@becketlaw.org  or call 202.349.7210.

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Becket, ACLU Hit Florida over Denial of Kosher Food to Jewish Prisoners

Washington D.C. – Today, Becket and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) jointly filed a friend-of-the-court brief criticizing the State of Florida for refusing to provide a kosher diet to Jewish prisoners. Florida is the only large prison system in the country that still denies a kosher diet to Jews.

“Prisoners surrender many of their physical rights at the jailhouse door, but they do not surrender the fundamental right of conscience,” said Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel at Becket. “Bureaucratic stubbornness should not prevent a small number of prisoners from peacefully following the centuries-old commands of Judaism.”

Becket has sued Florida over the denial of a kosher diet twice—first in 2002, then in 2012. Both times it received a favorable result on behalf of one observant prisoner. This latest lawsuit was filed by the United States on behalf of all observant prisoners. A federal district court ordered Florida to begin providing a kosher diet for all observant inmates no later than July 1, 2014, and Florida has appealed.

In its appeal, Florida claims that a kosher diet is too expensive to be required by federal law. However, at least thirty-five states and the federal government maintain kosher diets without problems of cost. Moreover, from 2004 to 2007, Florida itself provided a Jewish dietary program that cost only a fraction of one percent of its annual food budget.

“States as diverse as California, New York, and Texas already provide Jewish inmates with kosher food. It is only a matter of time before Florida is required to do the same,” added Goodrich.

In addition to its successful suits against Florida, Becket has won kosher diet cases against Georgia and Texas, and has assisted in a similar victory against Indiana. Becket has never lost a case when suing a prison system over the denial of a kosher diet.

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions—from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For 18 years its attorneys have been recognized as experts in the field of church-state law. Becket recently won a 9-0 victory in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact  Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or call 202.349.7210.

Inmate Drops Lawsuit after Florida Ordered to Provide a Kosher Diet

Washington, D.C.Today, an Orthodox Jewish prison inmate ended his four-year-old lawsuit seeking a kosher diet, thanks to a recent court ruling requiring Florida to provide all Jewish prison inmates with a kosher diet. Florida is the only remaining major prison system objecting to providing kosher meals to observant Jewish prisoners.

“This is a major victory for religious freedom,” said Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel at Becket. “Florida is finally being ordered to join 35 other states and the federal government in protecting the rights of Jewish prisoners.”

Bruce Rich was born and raised in an Orthodox Jewish household. Since his incarceration, the Florida Department of Corrections has denied him a kosher diet, citing alleged cost and security concerns. Becket represented Mr. Rich, arguing that the denial of a kosher diet violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act because it forces him to choose between his religious practice and adequate nutrition.

In May of 2013, Mr. Rich won a major victory in the Eleventh Circuit, which ruled that “the evidence submitted by the [Florida Department of Corrections] on summary judgment in support of its position is insubstantial.” As the court noted, at least thirty-five states and the federal government currently provide kosher diets without problems of cost or security. In light of this evidence, the Eleventh Circuit held that the Department of Corrections made only “meager efforts to explain why Florida’s prisons are so different from the penal institutions that now provide kosher meals such that the plans adopted by those other institutions would not work in Florida.”

After Mr. Rich filed his lawsuit, the United States Department of Justice filed a parallel lawsuit making the same claims against Florida. In response to the United States’ lawsuit, on December 6, 2013, a federal court ordered Florida to begin providing a kosher diet to all Jewish inmates in the state. The ruling relies on Mr. Rich’s victory at the 11th Circuit, and orders Florida to begin providing kosher meals no later than July 1, 2014. In response to this ruling, Mr. Rich voluntarily dismissed his lawsuit, effective today.

“It’s too bad that it took multiple lawsuits for Florida to do what it should be doing anyway—allow Jewish prisoners to follow Judaism,” added Goodrich. “Prisons should not be faith-free zones.”

In addition to winning Mr. Rich’s appeal at the 11th Circuit, Becket won a previous kosher diet case against Florida, kosher diet cases against Georgia and Texas, and assisted in a similar victory against Indiana. Becket has never lost a case when suing a prison system over the denial of a kosher diet.

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions—from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For 19 years its attorneys have been recognized as experts in the field of church-state law. Becket recently won a 9-0 Supreme Court victory in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

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Church of Our Savior v. City of Jacksonville Beach

The Church of Our Savior, an Anglican congregation in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, is now free to begin construction on a new, permanent house of worship for its growing congregation.

A small church in an even smaller building

In 2013, Resurrection Anglican Church joined with another Anglican church in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, to form the Church of Our Savior. Since its founding, the Church has worshiped in six different facilities, including the historic Beaches Museum Chapel. The Church leased the Chapel for Sunday worship, as well as major holiday celebrations, weddings and Bible studies.

Yet the Chapel was a less than ideal home. The facility’s maximum capacity of 140 people forced the Church to split into two separate Sunday services, which limited the Church’s growth and inhibited its ability to worship in one unified celebration. To make matters worse, the congregation could not secure a long-term lease with the Chapel, and therefore had no permanent place to worship.

The search for a permanent building to call home

Reverend David Ball, pastor of the Church of Our Savior, had long dreamed of one day building and owning a permanent home for the Church. He searched throughout Jacksonville Beach for a property that was affordable, visible, and accessible. After years of searching, he finally found a property located in a charming residential area that was all three.

Hopeful in its prospects, the Church applied for a permit to be able to construct the new facility. But its permit application was denied twice.

Becket defends the Church of Our Savior

The Church of Our Savior sued, citing a federal civil-rights law that protects churches –  the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) –  and arguing that it had been treated unequally to other similar, nonreligious organizations seeking permits. Becket, along with attorneys Dan Dalton of Dalton & Tomich and Charles Stambaugh of Stambaugh & Associates, defended the Church of Our Savior in its fight for a new, permanent house for worship.

After a federal district court ruled in the Church’s favor in the fall of 2014, the Church and the City settled the case, allowing the Church to begin construction on its new home. The church dedicated their new church facility in October 2017. 

Victory in Murfreesboro

Mosques must be treated on the same terms as other houses of worship.

By: Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

A Muslim congregation in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, has now been freed from a discriminatory ruling that cast a cloud over the use of their new mosque.

Last year, a local judge invalidated the mosque’s construction plans on the ground that the mosque was subject to a stricter legal standard than a Christian church. But last week, a Tennessee appellate court overturned that ruling, holding that Rutherford County had properly approved of the mosque.

The mosque had faced a campaign of intimidation and harassment by local opponents. But in 2012, the Becket Fund filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the mosque. Shortly thereafter, a federal court ruled that the mosque had to be treated on the same terms as other houses of worship, and the congregation was able to use the new mosque for its celebration of Ramadan.

The most recent court decision marks a major victory for Rutherford County and its efforts to treat the mosque fairly. We’re glad that the Islamic Center will now be permitted to worship in peace on the same terms as all other houses of worship.

For more information about the facts and history of the case, click here.

Photo: Islamic Center of Murfreesboro with flag, by Saleh M. Sbenaty (Saleh M. Sbenaty) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Oregon church wins appeal to build new sanctuary

The Council relied on The Becket Fund’s letter in reversing the Planning Commission’s decision.

Life Bible Church of Harrisburg, Oregon last week won zoning approval from the City Council of Harrisburg to build its new sanctuary on land formerly owned by a failed RV resort. The Council’s decision overturned an earlier Planning Commission ruling that would have prohibited the Church from using its land at all. News reports said that the Church’s application was successful in part because of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal civil rights law that protects the rights of churches, synagogues, and mosques to use the land they own. The Oregon church will now be able to build its sanctuary on the banks of the Willamette River.

After the Planning Commission denied the Church’s land use permit application, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty wrote a letter to the City explaining that federal civil rights laws did not allow the City to “change the rules in the middle of the game” and that if the Church’s appeal was not approved, Harrisburg faced “significant financial liability.” The Council relied on this letter in reversing the Planning Commission’s decision.

“This is yet another example of why RLUIPA is so vital to religious organizations across the country,” said Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel for the Becket Fund. “Without RLUIPA, the City could have told Life Bible Church to leave town and worship somewhere else. Now the Church can take land that wasn’t being used and turn it into a flourishing place of worship.”

Jewish Prison Inmate Wins Major Victory in Battle for Kosher Food

Washington, DC — Today the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals granted a major victory to a Jewish prison inmate who is seeking to receive a kosher diet in accordance with his religious beliefs.

“Today’s decision is a great victory for human rights and religious liberty,” said Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel at Becket. “Even prisoners retain basic human rights, and the state cannot sacrifice those rights on the altar of bureaucratic convenience.”

The plaintiff in the case is Bruce Rich, an Orthodox Jewish prison inmate who has been denied kosher food by the Florida Department of Corrections (DOC) for many years. In 2010, he filed a lawsuit alleging that the denial of a kosher diet violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, because it forces Mr. Rich to choose between his religious practice and adequate nutrition. A federal district court dismissed his lawsuit in 2012, but Becket took on the case free of charge and filed an appeal.

“Prisoners surrender many of their physical rights at the jailhouse door, but they do not surrender the fundamental right of conscience,” said Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel at Becket. “Bureaucratic stubbornness should not prevent a handful of prisoners from peacefully following the centuries-old commands of Judaism.”

In the appeal, the DOC argued that denying a kosher diet was necessary in order to control costs and maintain security. However, the Eleventh Circuit ruled that “the evidence submitted by the [DOC] on summary judgment in support of its position is insubstantial.” Moreover, at least thirty-five states and the federal government currently provide kosher diets without problems of cost or security. In light of this evidence, the Eleventh Circuit held that the DOC made only “meager efforts to explain why Florida’s prisons are so different from the penal institutions that now provide kosher meals such that the plans adopted by those other institutions would not work in Florida.”

The case will now be remanded to federal district court for further proceedings. At the same time, the DOC is facing a parallel lawsuit by the United States Department of Justice over the same policy of denying kosher food.

At issue in both cases is the scope of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), a federal civil rights law that was passed unanimously by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The law protects both the religious exercise of prisoners, and the freedom of religious organizations to use land for religious purposes. Becket filed the nation’s first lawsuit under RLUIPA, and has been involved in hundreds of RLUIPA lawsuits since then—including scores of lawsuits protecting churches, and two lawsuits that forced prison systems in Georgia and Texas to begin providing kosher diets.

Eighteen different organizations filed five separate amicus briefs supporting Mr. Rich’s appeal. The amici represented a broad array of Jewish, Christian, Hindu, and nonreligious groups, including the ACLU, the National Association of Evangelicals, the American Jewish Committee, Aleph Institute, the Rabbinical Council of America, and the Hindu American Foundation.

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions—from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For 18 years its attorneys have been recognized as experts in the field of church-state law. Becket recently won a 9-0 victory in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

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For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or call 202.349.7224.

Jewish Prison Inmate Wins Major Victory in Battle for Kosher Food

Washington, DC — After seven years of litigation, a Jewish prison inmate in Texas today won a major victory in his quest to receive a kosher diet in accordance with his religious beliefs. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that Max Moussazadeh has a sincere religious belief in keeping a kosher diet, that Texas burdened his religious beliefs by denying him kosher food, and that the lower court should decide whether Texas can prove that it has a “compelling interest” in maintaining its current policies. The court stated that “we are skeptical” that the state’s desire to cut costs would pass legal muster.

“Today’s decision is a great victory for human rights and religious liberty,” said Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel at Becket Law. “Even prisoners retain their human rights, and the state cannot sacrifice those rights on the altar of bureaucratic convenience.”

Currently, at least thirty-five states and the federal government provide a kosher diet to all observant Jewish inmates. Texas is one of the few remaining holdouts. It estimates that the cost of feeding all observant Jewish inmates in its prison system would be less than 0.02% of its annual food budget.

“If thirty-five states and the federal government can provide kosher diets to all of their observant Jewish inmates, there is no reason Texas cannot do the same,” said Goodrich.

After Becket filed suit, together with megafirm Latham & Watkins, LLP, Texas established a “kosher kitchen” at one of its prison facilities and began providing a kosher diet. But it still denies kosher food to Jewish inmates who are transferred away from that facility. Becket is also fighting a similar lawsuit against the State of Florida.

Both lawsuits center on a federal civil rights law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA). The law protects not only prisoners but also religious land uses—such as religious schools, soup kitchens, and houses of worship. Becket has won numerous cases under RLUIPA defending a wide variety of religious expression across the country.

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Becket Law is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions—from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For 18 years its attorneys are recognized as experts in the field of church-state law.  For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or call 202.349.7224.

Food Fight: Oral Arguments in Prison Kosher Case Set to Begin

WASHINGTON, DC – A heated legal fight over Jewish prisoners’ access to kosher food will be heard when the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit hears oral argument Monday, October 1 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Becket Law and the law firm Latham & Watkins LLP are representing Max Moussazadeh, an observant Jew in the Texas prison system.  They will argue that the restriction violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

Although thirty-five states and the federal government provide Jewish inmates with a kosher diet, Texas has refused to provide a kosher diet to Moussazadeh, despite the minimal cost, which is less than 0.02% of its annual food budget.  There is mounting evidence that efforts to accommodate prisoners’ religious beliefs reduce violence and recidivism.

WHAT:   Oral arguments begin in Moussazadeh v. Texas Department of Criminal Justice

WHO: Anne Robinson of Latham & Watkins LLP will argue for Moussazadeh, before Fifth Circuit judges Carolyn Dineen King, Jerry E. Smith, and Rhesa H. Barksdale

WHEN:  Monday, October 1, 2012 at 9:00 a.m.

WHERE:  Room 223 of the John Minor Wisdom United States Court of Appeals Building, 600 Camp Street, New Orleans, LA

Becket Law is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. Becket has a 17-year history of defending religious liberty for people of all faiths. Its attorneys are recognized as experts in the field of church-state law, and they recently won a 9-0 victory at the U.S. Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

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U.S. v. Florida Department of Corrections

Prisoners are not popular, but they are human. That is why Becket defends religious freedom for prisoners.

In 2000, Congress discovered that government bureaucrats were routinely trampling religious freedom in prison. They were needlessly confiscating sacred texts, breaking up worship meetings, and banning religious diets. So Congress unanimously passed a law that forbids arbitrary restrictions on religious freedom in prison.

Invoking that law, Becket defended the rights of religious prisoners in Florida for over a decade. Until July 2016, Florida’s was one of the last prison systems in the country that denied its inmates religious appropriate diets. Becket sued Florida twice over the denial of a kosher diet—first in 2002, then in 2012. Both times it received a favorable result on behalf of one Jewish prisoner. Then represented by the Department of Justice, the United States government itself sued the Florida Department of Corrections on behalf of all observant prisoners.

In 2015, a federal district court ordered Florida to begin providing kosher meals for all observant Jewish inmates, and the Department appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Becket, represented by the global law firm Jones Day, filed an amicus brief in March 2016 urging the protection of the religious rights of all prisoners. The brief points out that at least 35 states and the federal government provide kosher diets to Jewish prisoners, and there is no reason the Florida Department of Corrections can’t do the same. The court heard oral arguments in July 2016, and two days later it affirmed the district court’s order to provide religious diets for observant Jewish prisoners. In October 2016, in another case that Becket supported with an amicus brief, the Court ruled that the Department must provide a religious diet for a Muslim inmate.

Becket, which has successfully represented or supported religious prisoners in Georgia, Texas, Indiana, and in past Florida cases, has never lost a case concerning a prison system’s denial of religious diets. In 2015, it won a landmark, 9-0 ruling in favor of prisoners at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Mosque Free to Open, a Win for All Religious Houses of Worship

Washington D.C. Today, in a great victory for religious freedom, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, will be able to use its newly built mosque for prayer for the first time. The Murfreesboro mosque has faced opposition from a small group of local residents, who filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent the mosque from being used. But on July 18th, after lawsuits filed by Becket Law and the United States Department of Justice, a federal court ruled in the mosque’s favor, concluding that the mosque was entitled to a certificate of occupancy on the same terms as any other house of worship.

“Today marks a triumph not just for the Muslims of Murfreesboro, but for people of all faiths. No house of worship should be kept from meeting just because the neighbors dislike their religious beliefs,” said Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel at Becket.

The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro has been part of the Murfreesboro community for over thirty years. In 2010, the Islamic Center began building a new mosque to accommodate its growing congregation. Its efforts were unfortunately met with hostile protests from a small group of local residents who claimed that the congregation was threatening solely because of its Muslim religious beliefs. Hostility toward the mosque culminated in acts of vandalism, arson, and even a bomb threat, which resulted in a federal indictment

In June 2012, opponents of the mosque brought suit in court, claiming, among other things, that Islam is not a religion and the mosque, therefore, lacks protection under the First Amendment. Dismissing these claims, the local Chancery Court judge nonetheless ruled that county approval of the mosque was subject to a heightened legal standard when compared with other houses of worship, due to the “tremendous public interest” surrounding the mosque.

In July, Becket Law filed suit on behalf of the mosque in federal court, arguing that subjecting the Murfreesboro mosque to a different legal standard than a Christian church violates the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses of the Constitution, as well as a federal civil rights statute, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The case was heard the day before the start of Ramadan—the holiest month in the Muslim calendar—and Chief Judge Todd Campbell issued a temporary restraining order requiring the County to conduct the inspection process and grant a certificate of occupancy for the mosque as it would for any other house of worship.

On Tuesday, the Mosque passed inspection and received a temporary occupancy permit, in time for the end of Ramadan, on August 18th.

“We now celebrate this ruling—not as a victory for our congregation, nor as a victory for American Muslims, but as a victory for the American Constitution,” said Dr. Ossama Bahloul, the imam of the Islamic Center.  “Part of what makes our nation great is that we protect religious freedom for all—Muslim, Christian, Jew, and others.”

In support of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, over 100 religious leaders from a wide variety of faith traditions have signed an open letter calling for equal treatment of the mosque.

In addition to Becket, the Islamic Center is represented by George Barrett of the Nashville law firm Barrett Johnston, LLC.

Becket Law is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions—from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For 18 years its attorneys are recognized as experts in the field of church-state law, and they recently won a 9-0 victory in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

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For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or call 202.349.7224.

 

Florida Faces Lawsuit over Denial of Kosher Food to Jewish Inmates

WASHINGTON, DC  – Yesterday, Becket Law filed an appeal on behalf of Bruce Rich, an Orthodox Jewish prison inmate who has been denied a kosher diet by the Florida Department of Corrections (DOC). Becket is arguing that denial of kosher food violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000(RLUIPA), because it forces Rich to choose between his religious practice and adequate nutrition.

“Prisoners surrender many of their physical rights at the jailhouse door, but they do not surrender the fundamental right of conscience,” said Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel at Becket Law. “Bureaucratic stubbornness should not prevent a handful of prisoners from peacefully following the centuries-old commands of Judaism.”

The DOC claims that it is denying a kosher diet in order to control costs and maintain security. However, at least thirty-five states and the federal government currently provide kosher diets without problems of cost or security. Moreover, from 2004 to 2007, the DOC provided a Jewish dietary program that cost only a fraction of one percent of its annual food budget and did not result in any security problems. It canceled kosher diets in 2007 against the advice of special commission appointed to study the issue.

“If states as diverse as California, New York, and Texas can provide Jewish inmates with kosher food, Florida can do the same. It’s not that difficult,” added Goodrich.

After Becket filed its opening brief, eighteen different organizations filed five amicus briefs supporting Mr. Rich. The amici represent a broad array of Jewish, Christian, Hindu, and nonreligious groups, including the ACLU, the National Association of Evangelicals, the American Jewish Committee, Aleph Institute, the Rabbinical Council of America, and the Hindu American Foundation.

Florida’s response to the appeal is currently due August 31, 2012. A decision in the case could come later this year.

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Federal Judge orders Tennessee County to allow mosque ability to open for Ramadan

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, in a major victory for religious liberty, Chief Judge Todd Campbell of the Nashville federal district court ruled that Rutherford County, Tennessee must allow the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro in Murfreesboro, Tennessee to complete the inspection process so it can use its mosque building in time for the religious holiday of Ramadan. Judge Campbell issued a temporary restraining order at the request of the mosque’s lawyers at Becket Law. Becket Deputy General Counsel Luke Goodrich argued the mosque’s case in Nashville federal court, along with attorneys from the Department of Justice. The court’s decision opens the door for the mosque to celebrate the Muslim holiday of Ramadan in their mosque building; Ramadan begins at sundown on Thursday, July 19.

“The bottom line is: the full expression of religious liberty is the public interest here,” said Judge Campbell from the bench.

The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro has been part of the Murfreesboro community for over thirty years. In 2010, the Islamic Center began building a new mosque to accommodate its growing congregation. Its efforts were unfortunately met with hostile protests from a small group of local residents who claimed that the congregation was threatening solely because of its Muslim religious beliefs. Among other things, these anti-mosque protestors made the absurd claim that Islam is not a religion and that the mosque, therefore, lacks protection under the First Amendment. Hostility toward the mosque culminated in acts of vandalism, arson, and even a bomb threat, which resulted in a federal indictment.

“This is a great victory not just for the Muslims of Murfreesboro, but for people of all faiths. No house of worship should be kept from meeting just because the neighbors don’t like their religious beliefs,” said Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel at Becket. “The First Amendment prevailed today, and we are all the better for it.”

In June of 2012, a local Chancery Court judge ruled that county approval of the mosque was subject to a heightened legal standard when compared with other houses of worship, due to the “tremendous public interest” surrounding the mosque. As Becket’s request points out, subjecting the mosque to a different legal standard than a Christian church violates the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses of the Constitution, as well as a federal civil rights statute, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

“The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro is delighted by the judge’s decision,” said Dr. Ossama Bahloul, the imam of the Islamic Center. “We are thankful that Becket was able to find justice for us in the federal courts. We look forward to celebrating Ramadan with our neighbors.”

In support of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, over 100 religious leaders from a wide variety of faith traditions have signed an open letter calling for equal treatment of the mosque. The U.S. Department of Justice has also filed a parallel federal lawsuit in support of the mosque.

In addition to The Becket Fund, the Islamic Center is represented by George Barrett of the Nashville law firm Barrett Johnston, LLC.

 

*UPDATE: July 19, 2012, 12:41pm EST

The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro has released the following statement:

 We learned this morning that there are several more steps that need to be completed to obtain our final certificate of occupancy, and that these steps will take perhaps 10 days to complete. The mosque is committed to complying with the building code just like any other building, and we will be moving quickly to bring that process to completion. We are happy that because of yesterday’s ruling this building inspection process, which is normal for all buildings, is now able to go forward to completion. It is unfortunate that we cannot be in our building for the start of Ramadan tonight. However, it does look like we will get to enjoy most of Ramadan in our building, especially the breaking of the fast at the end of Ramadan, on Eid-ul-Fitr. The children are very excited to get to use our new building to celebrate Ramadan.

We also want to say thank you to all of the well-wishers from around Tennessee and the entire nation. We have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support. We also want to thank our attorneys at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and Mr. George Barrett, as well as the U.S. Attorney Jerry Martin and the Department of Justice, for helping us obtain our rights.

Becket Law is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions—from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For 18 years its attorneys are recognized as experts in the field of church-state law, and they recently won a 9-0 victory in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.

For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or call 202.349.7224.

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Tennessee mosque sues in federal court for right to celebrate religious holiday

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, Becket Law, on behalf of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, has filed a request for a temporary restraining order in federal district court in Nashville, requesting that the Islamic Center be permitted to use its newly built mosque in time for the religious holiday of Ramadan. Ramadan begins at sundown on Thursday, July 19, and a decision on the lawsuit is expected within a day.

The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro has been part of the Murfreesboro community for over thirty years. In 2010, the Islamic Center began building a new mosque to accommodate its growing congregation. Its efforts were unfortunately met with hostile protests from a small group of local residents who claimed that the congregation was threatening solely because of its Muslim religious beliefs. Among other things, these anti-mosque protestors made the absurd claim that Islam is not a religion and that the mosque therefore lacks protection under the First Amendment. Hostility toward the mosque culminated in acts of vandalism, arson, and even a bomb threat, which resulted in a federal indictment.

“No congregation should have its right of religious liberty curtailed solely because some of its neighbors disapprove of its religious beliefs,” said Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel at Becket. “No religion is an island. When the rights of one faith are abridged, the rights of all faiths are threatened. All faiths have the right to worship God in freedom and in peace.”

In June of 2012, a local Chancery Court judge ruled that county approval of the mosque was subject to a heightened legal standard when compared with other houses of worship, due to the “tremendous public interest” surrounding the mosque. As Becket’s request for a temporary restraining order points out, subjecting the mosque to a different legal standard than a Christian church violates the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses of the Constitution, as well as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

“The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro looks forward to continuing to worship alongside our neighbors in peace, as we have done for over thirty years,” said Dr. Ossama Bahloul, the imam of the Islamic Center. “We have avoided litigation as long as we possibly could. But this lawsuit appeared to be the only way we could use our new mosque by the start of Ramadan. We hope the court will uphold the right of religious liberty for all, which is part of what makes this country so great.”

In support of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, over 100 religious leaders from a wide variety of faith traditions have signed an open letter calling for equal treatment of the mosque. The U.S. Department of Justice has also filed a federal lawsuit in support of the mosque.

In addition to Becket, the Islamic Center is represented by George Barrett of the Nashville law firm Barrett Johnston, LLC.

Becket Law is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions—from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For 18 years its attorneys are recognized as experts in the field of church-state law, and they recently won a 9-0 victory in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

 For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or call 202.349.7224.

Islamic Center of Murfreesboro v. Rutherford County

A faithful congregation outgrows its mosque

For 30 years, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro offered worship services, religious education, and community service in Rutherford County, Tennessee. As its congregation grew, the mosque’s 2,100 square foot space became too small for the hundreds of families and local college students it served. In 2010, the congregation obtained county approval to begin building a larger community center for religious ceremonies and other events.

Religious hostility and a heated lawsuit

After construction began, the congregation faced vocal protests from local residents who claimed, among other things, that Islam is not a religion, and that the First Amendment doesn’t protect Muslims. Unfortunately, these hostile words were also backed by acts of violence—including vandalism, arson, and even a bomb threat that ended in a federal indictment.

Hostility to the mosque culminated in a lawsuit led by local residents. Although the mosque was approved at a typical meeting of the county planning commission in 2010—the same way the county had approved the last twenty local churches—the judge ruled that the mosque should be subject to a heightened legal standard, due to “tremendous public interest.”

Becket defends the Muslim community’s right to build a house of worship  

The case was urgent—the congregation wanted to be allowed to use its mosque in time to celebrate Ramadan, the holiest time in the Muslim calendar.

So Becket filed a federal lawsuit seeking an emergency order allowing the congregation to use its mosque. We argued that subjecting the mosque to a higher legal standard than a Christian church violates the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses of the Constitution.

In July 2012, Chief Judge Todd Campbell of the Nashville federal district court ruled in our favor, saying that Rutherford County, Tennessee, must allow the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro to complete the inspection process so it can use its mosque building in time for the religious holiday of Ramadan. Finally, in August 2012, members of the Islamic Center used their newly built mosque for prayer services for the first time. And in June 2014, the Supreme Court rejected the mosque opponents’ final appeal, preserving Becket’s victory and ensuring that the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro is free to continue worshipping at its newly built mosque.

No religion is an island. When the rights of one faith are threatened, the rights of all faiths are threatened. All religious communities must be free to gather together in worship.

To hear the full story and learn more about this case, listen to Becket’s Stream of Conscience Podcast episode, “Permits and Prejudice.

Importance to religious liberty:

  • Property Rights: When it comes to property rights, religious communities—especially minority religious groups—often face discrimination from local governments or their communities. Becket defends the right of all faiths the practice their religion, which includes the crucial ability to build and gather in a house of worship.
  • Religious Communities: Religious communities have the right to operate according to their religious beliefs even if the wider community around them disagrees with those beliefs.

Church Wins Zoning Appeal; City Surrenders

Washington, D.C. – Today, Becket and a Christian church in Texas scored a huge victory for religious freedom.

After five years of litigation, the Elijah Group, an evangelical Christian church in Leon Valley, Texas, has finally gained the right to use its building for worship without discrimination from the city government. The settlement follows a unanimous ruling from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which said that the city violated federal law by discriminating against the church. Under the settlement agreement, the city must allow the church to meet and must pay $250,000 in legal fees.

“Finally, after five long years, our church has a permanent home in Leon Valley,” said Pastor Darryl Crain, pastor of the church. “We are so glad that Becket stepped in and took our appeal.”

The case began in 2007 when the Elijah Group tried to buy a church building located within a retail zone. Although the building had been used as a church for over a decade, the city of Leon Valley refused. Desiring to increase its tax revenues, the city had recently revised its zoning code to exclude religious assemblies from retail zones—even while allowing many secular assemblies, such as auditoriums, convention centers, theaters, and private clubs.  Thus, Leon Valley allowed the Elijah Group to move its daycare and administrative offices to its new home, but it prohibited the church from gathering for worship.

Represented by Becket, the Elijah Group sued the city, arguing that the zoning code violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal civil-rights law which prohibits cities from discriminating against churches. The Fifth Circuit unanimously agreed—ultimately leading to today’s settlement.

“Federal law is clear: Cities cannot treat churches worse than the local Elks lodge, convention center, or movie theater down the street,” said Luke Goodrich, the attorney who argued the appeal before the Fifth Circuit. “The right of religious freedom includes the right to gather on property for worship and other religious activities.”

Becket Law is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. Becket has a 17-year history of defending religious liberty for people of all faiths. Its attorneys are recognized as experts in the field of church-state law, and they recently won a 9-0 victory against the federal government at the U.S. Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC.

For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or call 202.349.7224.

Rich v. Buss

A prisoner’s choice: Faith or food

What if you had to choose between practicing your faith and receiving adequate nutrition? That choice confronted Bruce Rich, an Orthodox Jewish prisoner. The reason? Mr. Rich is a Florida inmate, and Florida was one of the last remaining states in the country to deny kosher diets to Jewish prisoners.

Mr. Rich has kept kosher his entire adult life. In prison, he observes the Sabbath and is seen as a rabbi to other Jewish prisoners, teaching the Torah and serving as cantor during religious services. Mr. Rich believes that keeping a kosher diet is not a voluntary endeavor, but a fundamental tenet of his faith. Because he was denied a kosher diet, on two different occasions Mr. Rich was forced to go without regular meals for over a month. Mr. Rich sued in 2010 in federal district court, which ruled against him in 2012.

Becket defends religious liberty behind bars

In 2012, Becket filed an appeal on behalf of Mr. Rich, arguing that denial of a kosher diet violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA)—a landmark civil rights law designed to protect religious freedom in prison. Congress enacted RLUIPA unanimously in 2000, finding that, “[w]hether from indifference, ignorance, bigotry, or lack of resources, some institutions restrict religious liberty in egregious and unnecessary ways.”

In response to Mr. Rich’s lawsuit, Florida claimed that denying a kosher diet was necessary to control costs and maintain security. But at the time, 35 other states and the federal government already provided kosher diets without problems of cost or security. And from 2004 to 2007, Florida itself provided a Jewish dietary program that cost only a fraction of one percent of its annual food budget and did not result in any security problems.

Unanimous victory for Jewish inmates

In May 2013, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously in Mr. Rich’s favor, finding that “the evidence submitted by [Florida] … is insubstantial.” The court said that Florida made only “meager efforts to explain why Florida’s prisons are so different from the penal institutions that now provide kosher meals.” It then sent the case back to the district court.

Shortly after, a district court in a separate case, relying on the Eleventh Circuit’s decision, ordered Florida to begin providing a kosher diet to all observant Jewish inmates, including Mr. Rich, no later than July 1, 2014. In response to this victory, Mr. Rich voluntarily withdrew his lawsuit.

In addition to winning Mr. Rich’s appeal at the Eleventh Circuit, Becket has won previous kosher diet cases against Florida, Georgia, and Texas, and assisted in a similar victory against Indiana. In fact, Becket has never lost a kosher diet case against a prison system.

Importance to religious liberty:

  • Individual freedom: Individual religious freedom encompasses more than just thought or contemplation—it involves action. Individuals must be free to follow their religious convictions into practice, including when they are incarcerated.
  • RLUIPA: Like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was passed with bipartisan support. RLUIPA ensures religious liberty in two areas where it is most vulnerable: land use and prisons.

Elijah Group v. City of Leon Valley

Houses of worship in Texas must be treated fairly, thanks to Becket. Becket stepped in when the City of Leon Valley, Texas refused to allow a church, the Elijah Group, use its building for worship.

The city enacted a new zoning ordinance with a retail corridor intended to boost tax revenues for the city. The ordinance prohibited churches from the corridor while allowing nonreligious assemblies like theaters, auditoriums and private clubs. The Elijah Group, a small congregation looking to relocate near its old location, bought a former church building which was poorly suited for any other use but which was located within the retail corridor.  Although Leon Valley allowed the Elijah Group to move its daycare and administrative offices to its new home, it prohibited them from gathering there for worship.  The Elijah Group sought a zoning change to allow it to worship in its new church, which the city denied.

The Elijah Group sued the city, arguing that the city’s code was unenforceable under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), because the city was not treating the church the same as secular assemblies. The district court sided with the city, but after Becket joined the case on appeal, the Fifth Circuit held that the city had indeed violated RLUIPA.  Specifically, the Fifth Circuit recognized that RLUIPA requires churches to be treated the same as the non-religious assemblies like private clubs.

 

Third Church of Christ, Scientist v. District of Columbia

After years of litigation, Washington DC’s Third Church of Christ, Scientist finally won its battle with DC preservationists, and will soon enjoy a new church building. Its previous building was an eyesore with the dubious honor of being a landmark of the “Brutalist” style, a 1960s French school that emphasizes large expanses of windowless raw concrete. The previous bunker-like structure had blighted a corner just a few blocks north of the White House for forty years, and was often mistaken by unwitting tourists for a fallout shelter.

Originally an architectural “experiment”, the church building was first designed without the local congregation’s input into the architect’s ‘artistic vision.’ The Brutalist structure thus never met the church’s needs and in fact sent a message counter to the church’s. Instead of welcoming visitors and newcomers and portraying the church as a positive contribution to the neighborhood, the imposing concrete building had few windows, an entrance that was difficult to find, and a stifling atmosphere. It was frequently compared to a “concrete straitjacket.”

When the congregation first decided that it could no longer suffer the Brutalist structure and attempted to replace it, the DC Historic Preservation Review Board retaliated by designating the building as a landmark—forcing the church to preserve a building that was unwelcoming and unstable. That’s when Becket stepped in to defend the church.

The church argued that the preservation board was interfering with its First Amendment right to exercise its religion. The building’s imposing architecture hampered the church’s message and its ministry. Religious liberty required that the church be able to decide how best to use its property in accordance with its faith.

Finally, in 2014, after several years of litigation, the Church prevailed. It demolished the old Brutalist bunker and began the process of building a new, light-filled building. It has hired world-renowned architect Robert A.M. Stern to design a new building that meets the needs of a downtown church while also contributing to the beauty of the surrounding area. Now the church can move forward in its mission, celebrating a hard-fought victory for both beauty and religious liberty.

*Photo Credit: Third Church of Christ Scientist (rodeomilano, creative commons)

Bethel World Outreach Ministries v. Montgomery County

Bethel World Outreach Church is a Christian church located in Silver Spring, Maryland. It is made up of people from more than 45 nations and cultures, and it has grown so much that it has been forced to turn people away from services in its current facilities. Eight years ago, Bethel bought land in Montgomery County, Maryland, with plans to build a church home large enough to accommodate its growing congregation.

But Montgomery County had other plans.  Although churches were permitted on Bethel’s land, the county held up what should have been a routine water and sewer hookup application, then passed a new law that made it impossible for Bethel to get those permits.  So Bethel did what the county wanted, and submitted a new application for a smaller church that would comply with the new water regulations.  What did the county do?  Again, it held up the church’s application, and again, it passed a new law that made it impossible for Bethel to build a church on its own land.

Represented by Storzer & Greene, PLLC, Bethel sued the county for violations of the state and federal constitutions, and violations of RLUIPA.  A lower court sided with the county, so the church appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond. Becket submitted a brief in support of Bethel, joined by several other churches and ministries who wish to see churches treated fairly.  Becket’s brief highlighted the special problems faced by new and minority-dominated churches, problems that RLUIPA was designed to fix. The Fourth Circuit ruled in favor of the church, setting a strong precedent in favor of religious freedom for houses of worship.

 

Vermont Department of Corrections

In August 2007, the Vermont Department of Corrections proposed a measure that would impose lengthy new regulations on religious practices. Becket stood up against the proposed Directive 380.01, warning Vermont that the proposed regulations might violate the constitutional rights of inmates under federal statutes and the First Amendment.

Among other things, the proposed Directive required mandatory registration of an inmate’s religious identity, an imposed one-year waiting period before changing religious affiliation, and prohibition of attendance to interfaith religious services without first applying for a permit. It also denied inmates the right to lead religious services—even if they are ordained clergy—and prohibit inmates from “demonstrative prayer” and prayer with others.

Not long after receiving Becket’s letter, the head of the Vermont Department of Corrections called Becket’s attorneys and told them he would change the proposed rules to accommodate religious exercise: A win for religious freedom in the Green Mountain State.

 

 

Matter of Congregation Kol Shofar

Congregation Kol Shofar is a Conservative Jewish synagogue in Tiburon, California, just north of San Francisco. In 2006, the Tiburon Planning Commission denied the synagogue’s plan to make much-needed improvements to its existing sanctuary, despite the Congregation’s stated willingness to accept reasonable conditions.

That’s when the synagogue turned to the Becket Fund. In a series of legal opinion letters to Tiburon’s elected officials, the Becket Fund warned that the denial of building permits violated both state and federal law.

The Becket Fund noted that denying Kol Shofar the ability to make improvements to its facilities resulted in a substantial burden on the Congregation’s religious activities. Space constraints would force synagogue services—particularly on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—to be held at times incompatible with Jewish ceremonial requirements, and limited the synagogue’s ability to host community religious events. The Becket Fund further observed that Kol Shofar was the only Jewish congregation in Tiburon, and that churches in the area had been permitted to expand their facilities without bureaucratic obstruction. The town had previously claimed that permitting Kol Shofar to build would result in “incompatibility” with the surrounding neighborhood: a textbook example of unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.

As a result, Tiburon compromised and allowed Kol Shofar to expand its sanctuary, allowing the Jewish congregation to practice their faith in peace.

“I am writing to express our synagogue’s profound appreciation for the critically important work of The Becket Fund. It was a delight and an honor to work with you. We are grateful that you agreed to take us on as a client – we fearlessly predicted we would add to the mettle of the Becket Fund!” — Kol Shofar Congregation

*Photo of Kol Shofar synagogue. Photo credit: Michael Loeb Photography.  Used by Permission.

Albanian Associated Fund v. Township of Wayne

For years, the Township of Wayne, New Jersey blocked the Albanian Associated Fund (AAF), a Muslim congregation, from building a mosque. The congregation’s efforts were opposed by a so-called “Property Protection Group” in the community, who labeled the mosque a “public nuisance.” Instead of protecting the First Amendment rights of the congregation, Wayne Township suddenly decided that it needed to seize the future home of the mosque for “open space.”

In July 2006, Becket, along with Roman P. Storzer of Storzer & Greene, filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of AAF against the Township of Wayne, for violating the Constitution as well as the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA). The lawsuit, filed in New Jersey district court, was filed to stop the Township from using eminent domain to seize AAF’s property. A federal judge sided with Becket, preventing the Township from seizing the property, and protecting the mosque’s right to build.

“This is a great victory in the battle for the rights of religious organizations of all faiths,” said Kevin ‘Seamus’ Hasson, Founder of Becket, “However, the greater war will continue until local governments learn that the Constitution prohibits this type of eminent domain abuse.”

“It is wonderful to see the courts in this country protect religious freedom,” said Atmi Kurtishi, president of the Albanian Associated Fund. “But we couldn’t have done it without Roman Storzer and Becket.”

Guzzi v. Thompson

Rosario Guzzi is a prison inmate in Massachusetts who requested kosher meals based upon his “Orthodox Catholic” beliefs. The state denied his request and when he sued, the federal district court upheld the denial based on the judge’s declaration that the tenets of Catholicism do not require believers to keep kosher.

Representing himself, Guzzi appealed to the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston. That Court, presumably concerned about the district court’s decision to interpret and apply the content of Catholic doctrine, invited Eric Rassbach, the Becket Fund’s National Litigation Director, to brief and argue the case as a friend of the court in support of neither party. Rassbach told the court that, “governments should not be deciding whether a religious belief is orthodox.” The Becket Fund further argued that such out-of-the-ordinary requests must be judged by the inmate’s sincerity and truthfulness (a factual test common in many areas of law), not by a state-created list detailing which religious practices belong to which religion. Otherwise the state would back into the role of deciding what religious beliefs are allowed and which are not, a censorship role that would harm all religious believers. Rassbach suggested that the district court should first have decided whether Guzzi was really telling the truth about what he believed or was simply trying to provoke the prison administration with an insincere claim.

After oral argument but before the First Circuit issued its decision, Massachusetts tried to end the case prematurely by suddenly ordering a kosher diet for Guzzi. This would have left in place the district court’s decision giving Massachusetts a right to define orthodoxy in religion. The Becket Fund immediately asked the First Circuit to vacate the lower court’s decision, getting rid of the district court’s “theology police” opinion. The First Circuit ruled in favor of the Becket Fund.

It was a victory for all who believe that government officials should not be in the business of theological interpretation.

Centennial Baptist Church, Oklahoma

The city of Sand Springs, Oklahoma needed a new property to build a new commercial development complex, and it had eyes on the Centennial Baptist Church property. The city offered to purchase Church property and had indicated that it would invoke eminent domain to seize it if necessary. The church officially rejected the offer, refusing to leave the home that its small, but vibrant African-American congregation had worshiped in for decades.

In March 2006, Becket sent a letter to the City of Sand Springs, Oklahoma on behalf of Centennial Baptist Church, demanding that the city immediately end further attempts to seize the church’s property in violation of the Constitution.

“To put it simply,” the letter stated, “the church property is not for sale, and any attempt by the City to seize the Church’s property through eminent domain will be challenged by immediate legal action.”

The letter further cautioned the city that “the Church’s right to engage in religious exercise on its property, free from government burden and interference, is fully protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution, the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.”

Rather than face Becket in court, the city immediately dropped its plans to use eminent domain to seize the property, and the people of Centennial Baptist Church were able to continue worshiping in their house of worship as they had for decades.

Rocky Mountain Christian Church v. Boulder County


In 2004, Rocky Mountain Christian Church was growing. The nondenominational church and school in Niwot, Colorado applied for the routine permits needed to expand its sanctuary and school buildings.

In a classic case of discriminatory zoning, Boulder County commissioners rejected the church’s application despite allowing a secular school just a mile away to do exactly what the church wanted to do. As a result, the church had to conduct classes in the hallway. Becket stepped in to represent the church.

Becket argued that denying the permit not only treated the church unequally, but substantially burdened the church’s ability to function and dissuaded other houses of worship from locating in the County. (The County had also told a local synagogue it could have only 100 seats because the county did not want any more “mega churches.”)

After a multi-week trial in federal district court, a jury ruled in the church’s favor on all three of its RLUIPA claims. The county then appealed to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, where its appeal was rejected. Intent on discriminating against the church, the county appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which finally put an end to it all by refusing to hear the case. This left intact the ruling that Boulder County had unfairly discriminated against the church in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) – a lesson that overly zealous and anti-religious zoning boards should take to heart.

Christ Church New Jersey v. Rockaway Township

Cramped—that’s how members of Christ Church felt after an exhausting seven year search for a new house of worship. In less than twenty years, a home Bible study of eight people had grown to a church of more than 5000 members. Their 800-person sanctuary was bursting at the seams; it couldn’t keep pace with the needs of a rapidly expanding congregation.

In April 2003, the Church signed a contract to purchase a large property from a bio-tech firm in Rockaway Township, New Jersey. It seemed like a perfect fit. Conveniently located just 21 miles away from the Church’s primary campus in Montclair, the new facility could seat over 2,500 people, every service. But when Christ Church requested approval for its site plan from the Rockaway Township Planning Board, local officials actively sought to block construction. Although couched in terms of concerns about traffic and congestion, there were also indications that some of the resistance came from the fact that Christ Church’s membership was diverse, and its Senior Pastor, Rev. David Ireland, was African-American.

Becket stepped in to advise Christ Church and counter the city’s attempts to drag out the approval process. City bureaucrats sought to foment local opposition, and even went as far as to question whether Christ Church was, legitimately, a “church” as defined by city regulations. Rockaway Township, observed Derek L. Gaubatz, Becket’s former director of litigation, tried “to hunker down and throw sand in the gears at every step of the process.” In a private meeting with Rev. Ireland, the Mayor of Rockaway said “we don’t want you here,” and threatened to seize the property by force of eminent domain.

On April 15, 2005, Christ Church filed suit against Rockaway Township officials for placing unconstitutional, discriminatory burdens upon its right to pursue its religious mission.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), the federal statute that supplied the core of Christ Church’s claims, shields religious institutions from the imposition of land use regulations which place them “on less than equal terms” with nonreligious assemblies. Local officials did just that. Rockaway Township did everything it could to create an antagonistically unequal playing field for Christ Church.

After two years of litigation, the Rockaway Township Planning Board relented, settled out of court, and in October 2007, granted Christ Church approval for the construction of its interim sanctuary. The church celebrated receiving its final Certificate of Occupancy on June 1, 2009, six years after buying the property.

Living Faith Ministries v. Camden County Improvement Authority

Living Faith Ministries, a 6,000-member, 20-year-old New Jersey church, filed suit in federal court on February 15, 2005. Living Faith charges that Pennsauken Township, Camden County, and the Camden County Improvement Authority are violating the United States and New Jersey Constitutions and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) by attempting to seize the church by eminent domain.

The vibrant, predominantly African-American religious community has been growing at a rate of 30% annually. In 2002, Living Faith bought the South Jersey Expo Center property after a two-year search that turned up no other suitable alternatives.

The complaint remarks that the Authority “seeks to seize Living Faith’s Church to demolish it and transfer the property to a private developer for the purpose of building private residential units.” This is not a “public use,” such as a park or highway, so the taking would violate the Fifth Amendment. The Pennsauken Township has already acknowledged that the church would be a beneficial use to the community, with no negative impact on the neighborhood or surrounding businesses.

“Living Faith’s outreach to the community is provided through 27 specialized ministries that are dedicated to improving the lives of all within the larger community in accordance with the vision of the Church,” the complaint says. Living Faith holds several weekly religious services, fellowship programs, Bible study, and youth ministries, and a television show titled “Faith Speaks.”

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty joined the team of lawyers representing Living Faith Ministries in this suit, and successfully secured a favorable outcome for the church.

Cambodian Buddhist Society of Connecticut, Inc. and Pong Me v. Town of Newton Planning and Zoning Commission

When the Cambodian Buddhist Society of Connecticut bought 10 acres of land to build the state’s first Buddhist Temple, they were unpleasantly surprised.

The Town of Newtown’s Planning & Zoning Commission denied them permission to build their proposed temple, citing the temple’s Asian architecture and the volume of cars and noise the temple could potentially cause.  Represented by Murtha Cullina LLP, the Cambodian Buddhist Society sued under RLUIPA and a Connecticut law guaranteeing religious freedom.

The case went all the way to the state supreme court, where Becket filed an amicus brief arguing that the Cambodian Buddhist Society was entitled to build its temple.  Sadly, the justices sided with Newtown, saying officials had acted on “neutral concerns” about public safety rather than religious bias.  Their decision was out of step with other state and federal courts, which recognize that RLUIPA and state religious freedom laws apply even when bias cannot be definitely proved.

Becket believes that the 500 million Buddhists around the world have a right to build proper facilities in which to practice their faith, whether they are in Cambodia or Connecticut. Apparently, the state of Connecticut disagrees.

 

Living Water Church of God (Okemos Christian Center) v. Township of Meridian

One of the fundamental principles underlying “freedom exercise of religion” is the right to establish church facilities of sufficient size to meet a congregation’s needs.

For several years, Meridian Township, Michigan has blocked the Living Water Church of God from expanding its facility to carry out vital ministries of the Church. In August 2005, a federal district court held that the Township’s actions violated RLUIPA and stopped the Township from taking any further actions to prevent the Church from expanding its facility in order to accommodate its growing congregation and operate a Christian school.   The township appealed.

Becket lead the appeal at the Sixth Circuit, but unfortunately, the Court ruled that the township’s denial did not place a substantial burden on Living Water.

“At the heart of the matter is the right of any religious organization to practice its beliefs without government interference,” said Becket attorney Derek Gaubatz. “That includes protection from laws that unfairly stop church members from gathering together for basic activities like worship and religious teaching.”

 

Americans United for Separation of Church and State v. Prison Fellowship Ministries

Imagine thanking one of the most successful prisoner rehabilitation programs in the nation with a $1.5 million dollar plus fine. But a federal judge in Iowa, acting at the behest of the hyperseparationist group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, did just that.

The Iowa InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) is a comprehensive, faith-based pre-release rehabilitation program for prisoners that was designed by Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries. It has an exemplary record of successfully rehabilitating hardened criminals into contributing members of society. The program presents viable, cost-saving solutions for helping prisoners, something with which state and local governments often struggle. However, in 2006, after a lawsuit was brought by the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, an Iowa federal judge ordered that the IFI program in Iowa be shut down, and that IFI and its affiliate, Prison Fellowship Ministries, repay the state of Iowa the more than $1.5 million which IFI had received for services over the previous six years.

The reasoning? According to the court, IFI is “pervasively sectarian,” and therefore simply cannot interact with the state. This discredited doctrine had already been rejected by the federal courts, making the ruling even more preposterous. After losing in trial court, Prison Fellowship contacted Becket and asked us to take on the appeal before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2007, we argued the case before an Eight Circuit panel that included former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

In a huge win for all faith-based programs, the Eighth Circuit reversed the most damaging part of the district court’s judgment, rejecting the idea that Prison Fellowship had to repay the amounts they had earned for providing rehabilitation services. Although political changes in Iowa resulted in an end to the program there, the result in this case ensured that Prison Fellowship could continue its ministries in many other state prison systems and continue to help many prisoners repent and rebuild their lives.

Benning v. Georgia

Ralph Benning is a Torah observant Jew who eats kosher food, wear a yarmulke, observes his faith’s specific holy days and performs religious rituals. He was an inmate in the Georgia prison system.

Benning asked a number of state and prison officials to provide him with a kosher diet and permit him to wear a yarmulke. When prison officials denied Benning’s requests, he had no choice but to file suit. Georgia moved to dismiss, arguing that the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was unconstitutional because (Georgia claimed) it exceeded the authority of Congress under the Spending and Commerce Clauses, and violated the Tenth Amendment and the Establishment Clause.

The district court dismissed some of Benning’s claims and concluded that RLUIPA was constitutional, but allowed that issue to be appealed. On appeal to the Eleventh Circuit, Judge Pryor, writing for a unanimous panel held that “RLUIPA was validly enacted under the Spending Clause and does not violate either the Tenth Amendment or the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

After the case went back to district court, Georgia settled the case by creating a kosher dietary program for all observant Jewish prisoners, including Ralph Benning.

Gallart v. City of Frederick and Frederick Presbyterian Church

In 1998, members of a Frederick, Maryland church decided to build an addition to their church building. A new 180-square-foot lobby area would provide handicapped access to the church, an elevator, improved bathrooms and a wider stairwell. When the church’s attorney met with the city zoning administrator to determine what approvals were needed, he was told that the church did not conform to current zoning requirements mandating that on-site parking be provided. Although the existing church was grandfathered from the regulation, the construction of an addition would trigger the parking requirement. Because it was physically impossible, due to size constraints, to build a parking lot meeting the city’s zoning requirements on the church’s property (the church was built in 1825, well before invention of the automobile), Dean was told that the church would need a variance for the existing sanctuary if they wished to proceed with construction of the addition.

Multiple hearings were conducted followed by a rejection of the variance application.

A few months later, in the fall of 2000, the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was signed into law, and the church asked the office of the City Attorney for an opinion on how the new law would affect Frederick Presbyterian ‘s ongoing effort to win approval of the new addition.

On January 30, 2001 Becket wrote a letter to the city attorney, noting that Frederick’s “zoning regulations place a substantial burden on the church’s use of the property for religious exercise,” and that “imposing the parking requirements on the church would violate RLUIPA.” The city agreed, and the Zoning Administrator and Historic District Commission unanimously approved the addition.

In the meantime, a disgruntled neighbor appealed the city’s decision. Becket stepped in to defend the church in court.

*Image Credit: Fredrick Presbyterian Church

Cotton v. Florida Department of Corrections

Alan J. Cotton was a prisoner in Florida’s Everglades Correctional Institution who tried for several years to get the state Department of Corrections to provide him with kosher meals. Cotton was born and raised in the Jewish faith, and was a “sincere adherent of Orthodox Judaism” who “believes he is required to keep a kosher diet” in order to “conform to the divine will of God as expressed in the Torah.”

Such requests for a special diet are not unusual, and federal prisons in Florida routinely accommodate requests for kosher food. Cotton began his battle for a kosher diet in October 2000. Several requests were denied, and a subsequent appeal was rejected.

In September 2002, Becket filed a lawsuit against the Florida Department of Corrections, charging violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (“RLUIPA”), the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the Florida Constitution, and the Florida Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1998.

In October 2003, the Florida Department of Corrections finally settled, allowing Cotton to receive kosher meals according to his Orthodox Jewish faith.

Guru Nanak Sikh Society of Yuba City v. County of Sutter

The Guru Nanak Sikh Society began its effort to build a Sikh temple when it applied for a conditional use permit for a property it owned  in Yuba City, California. The site was located in a residential zone designated for large lot single family homes, where the zoning ordinance permits churches and other religious institutions only with a conditional use permit.

County staff found that the project would be consistent with the county’s general plan and recommended approval of the application with conditions that would minimize potential conflicts with residences in the area. But on April 4, 2001 the County Planning Commission voted unanimously to deny the CUP application, responding to complaints from neighbors regarding “noise and traffic.”

So the Guru Nanak Sikh Society began searching for a different property. In 2002 they bought property in an area of the county zoned for agricultural land. The  Society applied for a conditional use permit seeking approval for expansion and use of an existing house as a Sikh temple. As with the previous application, the Society stipulated that no more than 75 people would occupy the facility at any one time.

Once again, the county staff found the proposed use consistent with the county’s general plan and recommended approval of the application. But once again, neighbors complained, citing traffic and property value concerns. This time, however, the Planning Commission approved the CUP on a vote of 4-3.

The complaining neighbors now appealed the Planning Commission decision to the County Board of Supervisors. County staff recommended that the Board deny the appeal and uphold the Planning Commission’s approval of a CUP. But following a public hearing the Board voted unanimously to deny the use permit.

On August 19, 2002, represented by Michael Barrette, the Guru Nanak Sikh Society filed suit against the county and members of the County Board in U.S. District Court, alleging more than 20 violations of state and federal law, including RLUIPA. On November 19, 2003, Senior Judge Lawrence Karlton issued a 47 page decision in which he found that the County has violated RLUIPA, and upheld the constitutionality of RLUIPA’s land use provisions.

“There can be no doubt that plaintiff’s challenge concerns ‘religious exercise’ within the meaning of RLUIPA,” Judge Karlton wrote. “Defendants argue that plaintiff has failed to satisfy its burden because it ‘does not identify a single religious belief mandated by its faith that is inhibited (much less, substantially burdened) on account of the use permit denial. . . . This argument flies in the face of both the record and common sense. Plaintiff’s permit application itself details the ways in which the temple is required to facilitate Sikh religious practices. . . . Congress’s decision to enact RLUIPA necessarily recognizes the fact that religious assembly buildings are needed to facilitate religious practice, and the possibility that local governments may use zoning regulations to prevent religious groups from using land for such purposes. It is for this reason that challenges of zoning ordinances are expressly contemplated by the statute. The use of the land does not have to be a ‘core religious practice.'”

On December 12, 2003, Sutter County filed a notice of appeal to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

On June 9, 2004, Becket filed an amicus curiae brief with the Ninth Circuit. The brief stated that the denial by Sutter County’s Board of Commissioners to issue a building permit to the Sikhs violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) because it “substantially burdened” the free exercise of religion.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals followed Becket’s argument, holding that the Guru Nanak Sikh society had the right to build a place of worship in their neighborhood.

“This resounding victory for the Sikh group has nationwide implications for a wide range of cases dealing with religious land interests,” said Jared N. Leland, spokesman for Becket, “and it will echo especially loudly in California.”

Calvary Chapel O’Hare v. Village of Franklin Park

Calvary Chapel O’Hare was founded in 1996 in a former real estate office. By 2000, the church had doubled in size to 200 members, and its 2500 square foot facility was no longer adequate for its congregation.

So in 2002, Calvary Chapel signed a contract with a bowling alley that suited the church’s needs. The following month, however, city officials informed Pastor Jeff Deane that the church was in a zone that did not allow churches, even with a conditional permit. Though many other assembly and institutional uses were allowed in that zone, the church could not use its building as a place of worship.

Represented by Becket and local attorney Timothy P. Dwyer, Calvary Chapel O’Hare sued the Village of Franklin Park, charging violations of the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), the U.S. and Illinois Constitutions and the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

In July 2002, in a great victory for the church, the Village changed its Zoning Code to allow churches to apply for conditional uses in commercial zones, ensuring that all forms of assembly, religious and non-religious, were treated equally. In January 2003, Franklin Park approved the permit, the church formally purchased the property. Today Calvary Chapel O’Hare continues to worship freely in its bowling alley.

Greenwood Community Church v. City of Greenwood Village

Greenwood Community Church was organized in 1991, when it took over property that had been owned by the Belleview/Holly Baptist Church at a major city intersection (Belleview Avenue and Holly St.). The city had given zoning approval for construction of the church facility in 1985. It consists of just under 32,000 square feet of space, including a 600 seat sanctuary. (The original city permit allowed a 1,135 seat sanctuary, but it was later reduced somewhat in size so that a 125 child day care center could be built. The city issued a permit for day care use in 1988.)

The church has grown considerably in recent years, and the present building is no longer larger enough to accommodate all of its activities – worship services, youth group meetings, adult bible studies and other religious meetings and events – and so in the spring of 2000, it applied for an amendment of its Special Use Permit to expand both the building and associated parking spaces.

A member of the congregation had donated an additional four and a half acres of land immediately adjacent to the original 9 acre property in 1997, and the application proposed using the additional vacant property for the expansion. The expanded facility would occupy up to 61,485 square feet, roughly doubling available floor space and including an expanded sanctuary (at 900 seats, still 75 seats fewer than authorized under the original CUP), chapel, music room, classrooms and community area.

The church was meticulous about meeting city requirements for the proposal. A required (and noticed) neighborhood input meeting was held on July 26, 2000. Other than church and city representatives, only one area resident attended, and testified that the church does not cause traffic problems on Sunday mornings. The church spent some $250,000 on engineering, planning and architectural fees and expenses, and to prepare its application plans and respond to city requests.

On November 6, 2001, the city Planning and Zoning Commission held a public hearing on the application, and in response to newly raised concerns expressed at the meeting, the church agreed to drop its proposed day care use of the property. A month later, the Commission voted 5 to 1 to recommend that the City Council approve the application. In January, 2002, the city’s planning staff sent a memo to the Council stating that the application met all applicable standards, codes and criteria, and recommended approval.

The City Council held a public hearing on the application on January 28, and then took no action on it. Forty-nine days later, on March 18, 2002, the Council abruptly adopted “Findings of Fact, Conclusions and Order,” denying the application unconditionally, without proposing any changes or conditions for approval. Among the Council’s “findings” was that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was unconstitutional, and that it would therefore ignore the law’s requirements.

On May 6, 2002, Greenwood Community Church filed suit against the City of Greenwood Village in Arapahoe County District Court, charging that the City’s actions were “arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable and an abuse of discretion.” It alleges violations of the U.S. and Colorado Constitutions and RLUIPA, and asks the court to issue a preliminary and permanent injunction against the city, as well as an order directing the city to “issue all permits and authorizations necessary” for the expansion project.

On June 7, 2002, Becket joined the lawsuit on behalf of Greenwood Community Church.

In September 2002, the church and the city agreed to explore resolution of the case. After several months of talks, The Greenwood City Council met to reconsider the application at its meeting on December 2, 2002. On a vote of 6-2, the Council reversed its earlier decision and approved the church’s expansion plans.

In addition to compromises agreed to earlier, the church will accept a reconfiguration of its expanded parking area, more than doubling the setback from its eastern boundary, as well as a further reduction in square footage of the new, larger building.

 

Cottonwood Christian Center v. City of Cypress

A growing church seeks a new home

Cottonwood, a large non-denominational church in Orange County, California, was established in 1983 with a membership of just 50 people. Over the years, it grew rapidly, hosting 4,000 adults at worship services, and another 1,200 children at Sunday school each week. Its existing facility had a seating capacity of only 700, and it had to hold hold two services on Saturday and four on Sunday to accommodate its members. Yet it still had to turn away new worshipers because of limited space.

Church members began raising funds to purchase a 17.9 acre property for $13 million in a redevelopment area that had been vacant for decades. They drew up plans for a 300,000 square foot worship center with seating for more than 4,700, as well as a youth center, daycare, gymnasium, and other facilities to serve the congregation.

A city that chooses Costco over a church

In October 2000, Cottonwood filed an extensive application for a Conditional Use Permit (“CUP”), that went well beyond the city’s requirements. But a few weeks later, the city rejected it, citing omission of a Preliminary Design Review, despite the fact that the application itself states that such a review is optional. The following day on a Friday, the city sent the church a letter—by ordinary mail—informing them of a City Council meeting on Monday, at which it would adopt a moratorium on any new permit applications in the redevelopment area.

The moratorium lasted more than a year, during which the Council secured interest from Costco Corporation, the big warehouse retail store chain. The Redevelopment Agency then chose Costco’s proposal despite the fact that it doesn’t own the land, and that the property is not zoned for retail use.

A gross violation of church property rights

In February 2002, represented by Becket and by the firm of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, Cottonwood Christian Center filed a lawsuit against the City of Cypress, charging violations of RLUIPA and the U.S. and California state Constitutions.

In April 2002, the Cypress City Council voted 3-0 to begin eminent domain proceedings to take the land and then sell it to Costco for construction of a new retail warehouse store. Later, after Council member Anna Percy compared the Council members to “parents” who have responsibility to make important decisions, and city residents and church members as “kids” who don’t have all the information to make such decisions, the Council voted 4-0 to take the property.

In June 2002, Cottonwood filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to stop the City of Cypress from taking its property. A judge granted the motion, and held that the church was likely to win, stating: “Preventing a church from building a worship site fundamentally inhibits its ability to practice its religion. Churches are central to the religious exercise of most religions. If Cottonwood could not build a church, it could not exist.”

After months of settlement negotiations, the city and the church dismissed the lawsuits after Cottonwood agreed to build its church on another 29 acre site in the same area.

Images of finished building. Used by permission: Cottonwood Church

Castle Hills First Baptist Church v. City of Castle Hills

Castle Hills First Baptist Church was a growing church in San Antonio, Texas that needed a new space to accommodate its 17,000 members. So in the late 1990s it acquired six residential lots for much needed additional parking.

Knowing that the church intended to use the lots for parking, the city allowed it to demolish and remove homes on the lots. However, it then refused to grant a special use permit to begin construction of the parking areas. In the following months, city officials proposed a settlement that would allow the parking lots to be built, only to have the City Council vote them down. They also rejected three other applications to begin construction. A study done by the city’s own traffic engineer showed that development of the church’s new parking lot would actually improve traffic conditions in the area, but the report was ignored. The city also demanded that the church provide and pay for additional reports related to the aesthetics, drainage, air quality and traffic impact of the new parking lots. When the church met all these arbitrary requirements, the city council simply ignored them and denied their request to build.

Finally, after years of fruitless attempts to win city approval, the church sued in the summer of 2001. Becket joined the case in December 2001, and successfully won a victory for the Church in March 2004. Judge W.R. Furgeson’s ruling took the opportunity “to encourage Castle Hills and all other similarly situated communities to engage in thorough and positive debate and negotiation on the issues of zoning of religious organizations and places of worship… Cities must govern the health, safety and welfare of their communities, but in so doing, should consider carefully the positive and supportive role that a place of worship will play in doing so.”

Smith v. Allen

Becket is committed to defending the rights of all religious faiths, even those unknown to most Americans. When an Alabama prison inmate requested to keep an Odinist meditation crystal while in prison, officials denied his request on multiple occasions; Becket intervened on his behalf after the District Court upheld the prison’s decision.

Though the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals elected not to provide the specific prisoner with his meditation crystal (due to some limiting factors unique to the case), it did affirm the general rights of prisoners to religious accommodations under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). Further, it afforded religious inmates the opportunity to assert this right when a lack of accommodation can be demonstrated to have caused a substantial burden to the inmate. Thus, independent of the specific issue at stake in the case, the religious rights of prisoners were broadly upheld.

This decision laid the groundwork for future religious liberty cases dealing with the freedoms of prisoners, and ensured that individuals who face legitimate burdens on their exercise of faith may seek relief through the judicial system.

Living Waters Bible Church v. Town of Enfield

Becket has joined the battle being waged by the Living Waters Bible Church against the Town of Enfield, New Hampshire over the right to broadcast Christian programming over a 7 watt FM radio station in the area.

Becket, a nonpartisan and nonprofit public interest law firm, represents a number of churches and other religious institutions throughout the United States in cases filed under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (“RLUIPA”). Enfield officials relied on their land use regulation authority in denying the church’s request for a zoning variance that would allow it to operate a radio studio. The church’s lawsuit charges the town with violations of RLUIPA and the U.S. and New Hampshire Constitutions.

The Living Waters Bible Church is a small nondenominational church which meets in a modest little house located on a 50 acre property in Enfield. About a year ago, it agreed to work with another group, the Green Mountain Educational Fellowship, to bring Christian radio programs to residents in the area around Enfield. The Federal Communications Commission granted a Construction Permit for the station (WVFA – 90.5 MHz FM) on February 9, 2001.

In June 2001, Pastor Elmer Murray informally approached town officials about his plan to build a very small radio studio on church property (the transmitter and antenna are located miles away, on Shakers Mountain), and was told it was an “accessory use” to the permitted church and residential uses already in place. But in July, the Town Planning Commission decided that a radio studio was not an accessory use, and would require a variance from the Board of Adjustment. The Board, yielding to pressure from a few neighbors, denied the variance and a later motion for rehearing. The church, left with no choice, sued in state court in November.

The Town of Enfield removed the case to federal court on November 30. Becket, which won the first case litigated under RLUIPA just over a year ago, now represents churches and other religious groups in similar suits in half a dozen states stretching from Pennsylvania to Hawaii.

 

Pine Hill Zendo Inc. v. Town of Bedford Zoning Board of Appeals

Few cases better illustrate the arbitrary and even whimsical way in which local zoning boards often reject petitions for special use permits than the case of Pine Hill Zendo v. the Town of Bedford, New York. Pine Hill Zendo is a Buddhist temple, albeit a very small one. It is one of a handful of Rinzai Zen Buddhist temples in North America with a resident teacher, and consists of a meditation room in the home of John and Angela Mortensen. For a few hours four days a week, the zendo’s eleven members gather at the house for silent meditation, brief liturgies and instruction.

DenkoIn the spring of 2001, however, a neighbor complained to the Town Planning Board, and the Mortensens were asked to apply for a special use permit that would allow them to use the home as a “church or other place of worship,” although neither of those terms is defined anywhere in the Town zoning ordinance. The Zoning Board of Appeals held a hearing on the application on September 5, 2001, and a group of neighbors appeared in opposition. None claimed that they had been harmed or even inconvenienced by Pine Hill Zendo during the previous two years. One resident even testified that other neighbors told her they had never seen or heard anything, and didn’t even realize the Zendo existed. Opponents simply speculated that traffic and parking problems might develop.

The ZBA rejected the application for a special use permit, citing “issues related to traffic and on-street parking,” although on-street parking is permitted in the area at any time except for overnight hours during the winter months. And, incongruously, the Board cited concern over noise, despite the fact that the Zendo’s primary activity is silent meditation.

On November 2, 2001, Becket joined the case. On November 6, 2001, Pine Hill Zendo filed suit against the Bedford ZBA in the Supreme Court for the County of Westchester, New York, seeking reversal of the Board’s decision. The Town of Bedford subsequently settled, resulting in a victory for the Zendo.

Freedom Baptist Church v. Township of Middletown

Becket represented Freedom Baptist Church, a small religious community of about 25 members in Middletown Township in Pennsylvania, just west of Philadelphia.

In the fall of 2000, Pastor Chris Keay began a search for suitable space to hold worship services in Middletown Township. Pastor Keay soon signed a lease on the first floor of an office building below a dentist’s office.

However, the building was in a “no religion” zone. After having worshipped in the space for six months, a Township Zoning Officer came after the church, claiming that it was in a zone in which religious worship was not permitted under any circumstances. The church applied for a variance but was denied. It had no choice but to bring a lawsuit under the U.S. and Pennsylvania Constitutions as well as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

In its defense, Middletown challenged the constitutionality of RLUIPA, but Becket argued in favor of RLIUPA at the district court. Judge Stewart Dalzell issued a ruling issued on May 2002, upheld the law. It was the first time that a federal court had ruled on the constitutionality of RLUIPA’s land use provisions, and the decision has since been cited as precedent in other cases around the country. In November 2002, Judge Dalzell signed an agreement in which Middletown agreed to revise its zoning ordinances to comply with RLUIPA and pay attorney’s fees. Freedom Baptist Church was represented by Becket and by local attorney L. Theodore Hoppe.

*Photos of updated building used by permission: Freedom Baptist Church

 

Missionaries of Charity v. City of Los Angeles

Missionaries of Charity is an organization founded by the late Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, which now does sacrificial service in many countries, including the United States.  In addition to founding an organization for nuns, Mother Teresa founded a corresponding male group Brothers of the Missionaries of Charity.

In 1992, in the wake of riots in the area in April of that year, Missionaries of Charity Brothers bought and renovated a large house in a depressed neighborhood a little less than a mile west of the Los Angeles Convention Center. The Brothers used the home to minister to homeless young adults (mostly Hispanic) three days a week.

Between 60 and 85 young adults visited the home, known as “Nuestro Hogar” (“Our Home”), on any given day. In this safe, secure, non-institutional homelike residential setting, visitors find refuge from their lives on the streets, a hot meal (supplied by volunteers from area Catholic churches), and the opportunity to shower and clean their clothes. Priests are present from time to time to hear confessions and say Mass, and the Blessed Sacrament can be received in the home’s small chapel.

For nine years, the Missionaries of Charity Brothers pursued this mission to the homeless without incident or any objection from city officials. But in 2001, at the instigation of neighbors who had moved into homes nearby after the Brothers had established Nuestro Hogar, city officials decided that the Missionaries of Charity would have to apply for a conditional use permit and zone variance for their ministry there. The Brothers filed the application, but it was denied by the city’s assistant zoning administrator in May 2001, and an appeal to the Central Area Planning Commission was denied in August.

The Missionaries of Charity Brothers sued and the Becket Fund served as lead counsel.  The Brothers were able to obtain a stay pending resolution of a similar case. In 2006 the Ninth Circuit ruled that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was constitutional. After that, the City never brought the case back to court.  In 2011, the Brothers moved out of the home and the case became irrelevant.  The Brothers were able to stay in their home and help the homeless as long as they had needed the land.

Hale O Kaula v. County of Maui

They just wanted to worship and till the earth.

A simple beginning to a not so simple story. Hale O Kaula was a small congregation affiliated with the Fellowship of the Living Word that had been worshipping in the small Hawaiian community of Haiku since 1960. As they began to expand, they bought a new, six acre piece of land in 1991 in the Kula area of Maui.

The congregants were thrilled, because the new space was large enough for all of their proposed religious activities, as well as spacious enough to pursue a ministry characteristic of its denomination: agricultural activity drawn from the Old Testament of the Bible.

In 1995, they applied for a permit to build a spacious 8,500 square foot facility which would house a sanctuary, fellowship hall, restrooms, kitchen and offices. But the permit was denied.

So they built a smaller, solely agricultural building a few years later. The next year, they applied for a permit to add a second story to the building for religious worship. Their request was denied again.

Enter the Becket Fund. We filed a lawsuit on behalf of the church in the U.S. District Court in Honolulu, charging the Maui Planning Commission, Maui County, and the State of Hawaii with violating multiple provisions of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), as well as depriving the church of rights guaranteed to it under the U.S. and Hawaiian Constitutions. We made sure that the members of the Maui Planning Commission were served with the complaint as they walked in the door for their regular meeting in Wailuku in October, 2001.

The County fired back, arguing that RLUIPA “is patently unconstitutional.”

Enter the U.S. Department of Justice, in defense of the constitutionality of RLUIPA as well as in opposition to Maui’s blatantly discriminatory posture.

What ensued was a legal back and forth that included the congregation erecting tents on their own property and holding worship services, to which the media showed up and to which the County’s attorneys told them that “your past Sunday worship would probably not violate” Hawaiian law “if it is not a ‘regularly conducted church service’”—in other words, you can worship here every now and then, but worshipping every Sunday is out.

Ultimately, after several court rulings in favor of the church, Maui gave in. Hale O Kaula is now able to hold church services on its own property. Every Sunday.

 

Temple B’nai Sholom v. City of Huntsville

Temple B’nai Sholom is a Reform Jewish synagogue with a long history in Huntsville, Alabama. Founded in 1876, it has occupied its present location since 1899. The Temple sanctuary has been designated a Historic Building, and was extensively renovated in the mid-1990s.

In the 1970s, the Temple purchased two adjacent pieces of property in order to have room for future expansion. Each parcel contained a house, neither of which were of historic significance, although the entire area lies within an historic preservation district. One of the houses was demolished many years ago without any objection from the city or the Historic Preservation Commission, and other property owners in the area, including several nearby churches, have been allowed to demolish similar buildings.

On September 15, 2000, city code enforcement officials issued a notice declaring the house at 406 Clinton Avenue unsafe, and ordering the Temple to either “repair or demolish” the structure. Since the Temple intends to use the site for religious activities, including eventual expansion of the sanctuary, it sought permission of the Huntsville Historic Preservation Commission to demolish the house.

On November 20, 2000, the Commission refused, leaving the Temple in an impossible “Catch 22” situation: ordered by one city agency to demolish the house, and prohibited by another from doing so. To add insult to injury, the city then sought a criminal misdemeanor conviction against the Temple for its failure to obey the order to “repair or demolish.”

Finally, on May 8, 2001, Temple B’nai Sholom filed suit in Madison County Circuit Court against the City of Huntsville, the head of the city’s Inspection Department, and the administrator of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission. On June 1, 2001, defendants moved to remove the case from county court and move it instead to U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama.

In October 2001, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty joined the case, and an amended complaint was filed on October 23, 2001. It charged the city with violations of the Constitutions of Alabama and the United States and RLUIPA. On November 2, 2001, the city moved to strike the amended complaint and renewed their motion to dismiss. On November 6, Judge Smith summarily denied both motions. In February, 2002, Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor filed a motion for leave to join the suit on the Temple’s side, to defend the state’s Religious Freedom Amendment. (Temple B’nai Sholom v. City of Huntsville, et al., CV-01-S-1412-NE)

Interestingly, the City of Huntsville itself had burned down a number of houses of approximately the same vintage as the house at 406 Clinton Avenue at about the same time it took action against Temple B’nai Sholom. City Community Development Director Jerry Galloway was quoted in an article in the Huntsville Times as saying, “We have an obligation to the public to get rid of stuff that’s a danger to the public health and safety, and this property was.”

Although the city initially adopted a strategy of challenging the constitutionality of RLUIPA and sought the assistance of the statute’s most vehement critic, law professor Marci Hamilton, in the end it agreed to settle the case “in order to avoid the expense, inconvenience, and uncertainty of litigation.” (Along the way, both the City of Huntsville and the Alabama Preservation Alliance joined in an amicus brief challenging RLUIPA’s constitutionality, written by Hamilton and submitted to the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in C.L.U.B. v. City of Chicago.)

The settlement, approved by the Huntsville City Council on June 26, 2003, provides that the City of Huntsville will purchase the house at 406 Clinton Avenue for $25,000 and will pay to have the house moved to a vacant lot that the city owns at the corner of Dallas and Walker Streets. The settlement agreement also commits the city’s Historic Preservation Commission to “work with the Temple in good faith toward the issuance of a Certificate of Appropriateness approving the Plans [for the Temple’s expansion] and the project implementing the Plans within a reasonable and customary time period.”

Having given the Temple everything it sought in the lawsuit, the city nevertheless inserted language at the end of the agreement stating that it still refuses to concede that either RLUIPA or the Alabama Religious Freedom Amendment are “valid laws.”

Elsinore Christian Center v. City of Lake Elsinore

For twelve years, a church in downtown Lake Elsinore, California, congregated and ran a soup kitchen as a ministry to those in need. In 2000, the church agreed to buy property from a school that had formerly been used as a canned food store and recycling center. When the church applied for a Conditional Use Permit, the city denied the request.

The Becket Fund stepped in and successfully represented the church to defend its right to use its own property. We argued that the city violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and won a victory at the Ninth Circuit.

The ruling from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the only judge in the nation to have ruled unconstitutional the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.

“It erases any doubt as to the constitutionality of RLUIPA, at least for the land use portion,” said Becket Fund lawyer Roger Severino.

Congregation Kol Ami v. Abington Township

Since its founding in 1994, Congregation Kol Ami, a Reform Jewish synagogue, has held worship services and other religious activities at a variety of temporary locations in the greater Philadelphia area.  In 1997, it began searching for a permanent house of worship, and in early 1999, it began negotiations for the purchase of a property owned by a Catholic order of nuns.

In March 2001, the Abington Township Zoning Hearing Board refused to allow the congregation to use the facility for religious purposes, denying permission to continue “the prior nonconforming religious use of the Sisters’ property,” despite the fact that it had granted such permission just five years earlier to a different religious group based on the same set of facts. These modified township zoning laws resulted in an unreasonable burden on religious freedom. Furthermore, during hearings on Congregation Kol Ami’s application, some neighbors objected to the congregation’s move, with one stating flatly, “I don’t want a synagogue in my backyard.”

In April 2001, Becket represented Congregation Kol Ami in a lawsuit against Abington Township for discrimination against Jewish places of worship.

After prevailing in court, Kol Ami was able to settle the case on favorable terms.

Refuge Temple Ministries of Atlanta v. City of Forest Park

On March 14, 2002, U.S. District Court Judge Marvin H. Shoob approved a Consent Order under which the City of Forest Park, Georgia retreated completely from its earlier refusal to allow Refuge Temple Ministries to occupy and use a commercial property within its C-2 district. The city conceded that the zoning ordinance used to bar the church, since repealed, “would not have survived review under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.” The Consent Order also declared that “The establishment of a place of worship operated by the Plaintiff, Refuge Temple Ministries, shall be a permitted use within Forest Park’s C-2 District.”

Background:

Refuge Temple Ministries of Atlanta is a small church founded in December, 1997. Its approximately 50 members had been meeting at the home of Pastor Harry Simon and various other buildings, and sought a permanent home for the church. In August, 2000 they negotiated a lease for a property in Forest Park, a suburb on the south side of Atlanta. The building, at 770 Main Street, is located in the city’s C-2 (“central commercial”) district, which permits “churches and other places of worship with attendant education and recreational buildings” as permitted uses. On August 11, they obtained a Zoning Verification from city officials, signed the lease, and prepared to occupy the property. They spent nearly $14,000 on a first-and-last-month deposit, renovations and utilities.

On August 29, city officials notified Pastor Simon that they had approved the zoning application in error, having been unaware that the City Council had adopted a new zoning ordinance just four days earlier. The new law required churches to obtain a Special Land Use Permit in order to occupy property in the C-2 district, although it continues to allow other similar uses – private clubs, lodges, theaters, auditoriums and other places of assembly – without such a permit.

The church proceeded to apply for the special permit on September 8, but although no one appeared in opposition to granting the permit at meetings of the Zoning Board and City Council, on December 18, the Council voted to deny the permit without explanation.

On April 12, 2001, Refuge Temple Ministries filed suit in Federal District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, in Atlanta, charging the City of Forest Park with violations of the U.S. and Georgia Constitutions and seeking relief under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA). On June 4, the city council repealed the ordinance. On October 19, 2001, Refuge Temple Ministries moved for partial summary judgment.

After extended negotiations, the city finally agreed to a Consent Order (see above), and also provided a letter of apology to Pastor Harry Simon, declaring that the city “regrets Refuge Temple Ministries’ inability to locate its ministry within Forest Park.” The church, which moved into space outside the city during pendancy of the lawsuit, was invited “to locate within Forest Park some time in the future.”

Refuge Temple Ministries was represented in the lawsuit by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and by local counsel H. Eric Hilton. (Refuge Temple Ministries of Atlanta v. City of Forest Park, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, No. 1:01-CV-0958-MHS)

Town of Foxfield v. Archdiocese of Denver

In 1998 Monsignor Edward Buelt was designated the first pastor of Our Lady of Loreto parish in the Archdiocese of Denver.  The parish adapted a small separate building, intended for the rectory, for use as a chapel while preparations for building a permanent church across the street were ongoing.  At the urging of a few neighbors living near the rectory, the Board of Trustees of the Town of Foxfield adopted a bizarre ordinance (“Ordinance No. 3”) on March 22, 2001 which makes it unlawful to park more than five motor vehicles for more than fifteen minutes within 1,000 feet of a private residential property on more than two occasions during any thirty day period.

After receiving complaints concerning the church’s parking, the Town filed a lawsuit asking the Arapahoe County District Court to issue a permanent injunction and a declaratory judgment against the Archdiocese.  On August 1, 2002, the Archdiocese filed a motion arguing that Ordinance No. 3 violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (“RLUIPA”), Colorado’s “Freedom to Gather for Worship Act,” and the U.S. and Colorado constitutions and is thus void and unenforceable.  The Town filed a cross motion arguing, among other things, that RLUIPA is unconstitutional.

The Archdiocese was represented by the law firm of Rothberger Johnson & Lyons, and in 2002 The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty joined the case in an “of counsel” capacity, bringing expertise in constitutional law and RLUIPA.

The trial court rejected the Archdiocese’s RLUIPA defense, and The Becket Fund, along with a diverse coalition of religious and civil rights organizations filed an amicus curiae brief in the Colorado Court of Appeals that sought a reversal and defended the constitutionality of RLUIPA.  In August 2006 the Court of Appeals’ decision handed the Archdiocese a major victory by allowing the church’s RLUIPA claims to go forward, noting that “Ordinance No. 3” was not “neutral and generally applicable”.   In May 2007 the Court of Appeals’ ruling was upheld when the Supreme Court of Colorado denied the Town of Foxfield’s petition for Writ of Certiorari.

 

Greater Bible Way Temple of Jackson v. City of Jackson

Greater Bible Way Temple is a large church with a commitment to serving the community of Jackson, Michigan. After several years of growth, it purchased some property across the street from its existing church in order to expand its ministries. Because of its religious commitment to the poor and needy of Jackson, it dedicated the land to providing low-cost housing to the disabled, elderly, and others in need. The Church understood from prior conversations with the city that the city was interested in seeing housing on that land; the land is zoned residential and is just a block from a large apartment complex. The church asked the city for a rezoning through a highly discretionary process, and the city denied the request. This prevented the church from proceeding with its ministry.

The Church sued the city of Jackson for violations of RLUIPA. Two lower courts agreed, finding that the city had imposed a substantial burden on the Church’s religious exercise. In a stunning decision, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed those decisions, ruling that not only was there no substantial burden, but that RLUIPA’s “substantial burden” provision does not even apply to rezoning actions. The Court even went so far as to say that the city’s interests in uniform zoning laws satisfied strict scrutiny, an extremely stringent legal test that requires the government to prove interests so strong that they could justify racial discrimination, content-based speech restrictions, and forced sterilization. The Michigan Supreme Court’s opinion does not explain how, under its rationale, a rezoning action could ever violate RLUIPA’s “substantial burden” provision.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court elected not to hear the Becket Fund’s appeal.

Unitarian Universalist Church of Akron v. City of Fairlawn

For nearly a year, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Akron was forced to battle the City of Fairlawn, Ohio in federal court in order to build a fellowship hall on property the church has occupied since 1958.

The church was originally established in nearby Akron in 1839. At the time the church moved to the current site, the Village of Fairlawn had not yet been established. In 1993, Fairlawn adopted a new zoning ordinance, and created three municipal zoning districts, with only one district, M-3, permitting churches. Even there, however, they required special authorization for any construction or modification to existing buildings.

So when the Church asked for authorization to build a new fellowship hall and was denied, it filed a lawsuit arguing that Fairlawn’s implementation of its zoning code amounts to a ban on churches and an unreasonable restriction on the completion, restoration, reconstruction, extension or substitution of preexisting churches. Such burdens, they argued, violate the Constitution and RLUIPA.

The Fairlawn City Council buckled and voted 5-1 to approve a settlement with the Church that gave it everything it had asked for, including legal costs. The constitutional rights of the church, and all the other houses of worship the council had zoned out, was affirmed, and the Church now enjoys a bustling fellowship hall for its activities.

 *Photo Credit: Unitarian Universalist Church of Akron

Lighthouse Institute for Evangelism v. City of Long Branch

The Lighthouse Mission has been battling with the City of Long Branch, New Jersey since 1994, seeking permission to provide social services and conduct worship services in a building at 162 Broadway. The Lighthouse Mission’s Rev. Kevin Brown found that he was unable to persuade city zoning officials to consider granting a variance that would allow the proposed uses in the district in which the building is located. A Baptist congregation had been engaged in similar activity in rented space located directly across the street.

A suit was filed in Monmouth County Superior Court on June 8, 2000, charging the city with violations of the U.S. and New Jersey Constitutions, the Civil Rights Act of 1871 and the Fair Housing Act. Becket submitted an amicus brief in the case on May 7, 2001.

After a series of appeals to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, one of the two city ordinances in question was held to be constitutional, while the other was not – a partial victory for the Lighthouse Mission.

Haven Shores Community Church v. City of Grand Haven

In a settlement reached on December 20, 2000, the City of Grand Haven, Michigan agreed that a small local storefront church could occupy a storefront after all. It was the first case resolved under the terms of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA).

Haven Shores Community Church signed a lease for a storefront property in Grand Haven in May of 1999, but when Rev. David Bailey went to apply for building permit to modify the space, he was told by city officials that religious meetings and worship were not permitted at that location under city zoning laws. Even though Grand Haven’s zoning ordinance for the “B-1 Community Business District” specifically allows for “private clubs,” “fraternal organizations,” “lodge halls,” “funeral homes,” “theaters,” and “assembly halls” or similar places of public assembly,  the church’s claim that it too was a “place of public assembly” was rejected by multiple city offices, including the City Council.

On March 13, 2000, Becket filed suit in federal district court on behalf of the church, charging that the city had violated their constitutional rights to freedom of speech, religion, assembly, due process and equal protection of the laws.

However, when President Clinton signed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) on September 22, 2000, Becket was able to immediately file an amended complaint in the case,seeking relief under RLUIPA.  After the RLUIPA claims were filed, attorneys for Becket and the City of Grand Haven agreed to a consent judgment that settled the case in favor of Haven Shores.  Now there is a church alongside the funeral homes, theaters and assembly halls of Haven Shores.

Wyoming Sawmills Inc. v. United States Forest Service

Medicine Wheel is a sacred prehistoric stone circle about 80 feet in diameter that was constructed by the aboriginal peoples of North America.  Although the age of the structure is unknown, archaeological evidence indicates that human presence in the area goes back for 7,500 years or more.

Medicine Wheel remains a site of religious and cultural importance to the various Native American tribes in the region, who have gathered there for religious and other purposes for centuries.

In 1996, the Forest Service formulated a Historic Preservation Plan (“HPP”) to preserve the Medicine Wheel landmark and other valuable historic sites in the vicinity and make them accessible to both Native Americans who regard the sites as a sacred part of their culture and to the many interested visitors who travel to the mountain each year.

However, a private sawmill corporation wanting to use the property for commercial purposes, sued the forest Service over the Historic Preservation Plan claiming the accommodation for religious exercise of Native American faiths violated the Establishment Clause.  The sawmill lost at the district court level, then appealed the case to the 10th Circuit.

Enter Becket. Bringing together a vast coalition of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim organization, Becket filed an amicus brief emphasized that it is constitutional—even laudatory—for government to accommodate the religious practices of its people. Additionally, that this is a legitimate secular purpose of civil government.

The 10th Circuit ruled for protecting the sacred Indian sites, dismissing the sawmills claims of First Amendment violations.

The U.S. Forest Service was represented by the Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Baldwin, Crocker & Rudd and the Association on American Indian Affairs defended Medicine Wheel.

*Photo  Credit: National Register of Historic Places

Welch v. Cobb County

At the Cobb County Adult Detention Center, officials singled out the Roman Catholic faith, prohibiting a priest from conducting mass while allowing Protestants to practice their religion freely.

Because weekly Mass is an critical element of the Catholic faith, Rev. John Welch offered to lead a weekly Mass for the prison’s two dozen Catholic inmates, at no cost to the State. Disturbingly, the state-paid chaplain of the prison prohibited Welch from leading Mass at the prison, based on his expressed dislike for Catholics and his belief that Catholics are not Christians.

While the chaplain allowed Welch to lead a non-denominational Christian religious service once or twice a month, he mandated that this service cannot contain those elements of the ceremony that make it a Catholic Mass. Rev. Welch had also been prevented from holding a Bible Study at the prison.

By allowing these unconstitutional roadblocks to Reverend Welch’s volunteer service, the state’s discriminatory action forced Catholic prisoners to violate the dictates of their faith by failing to attend weekly Mass. Recognizing this problem, Becket intervened on behalf of Welch and the Catholic inmates, and secured an out-of-court victory for the free exercise of religion at the detention center.

Cutter v. Wilkinson

Becket’s amicus brief defended the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and its provision protecting prisoners’ religious rights from an Establishment Clause challenge. David Goldberger defended the prisoners. The Supreme Court agreed that RLUIPA provision was constitutional.

C.L.U.B. v. City of Chicago

Many Chicago churches are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Or rather, between a zoning official and a small space.

Chicago zoning law allows churches in residential areas, but churches and other houses of worship are allowed in business and commercial zones only if they are granted a special use permit, requiring that they go through a complicated and prohibitively costly process. Yet such permits are often denied because of the opposition of the local alderman or other political factors. And many churches argue that it is “almost impossible to find a parcel of vacant land large enough to build a church in a residential zone” in the city today.

So in 2000, C.L.U.B. (Civil Liberties for Urban Believers), an association of 40 churches in the Chicago area, sued the City of Chicago, arguing that the city’s zoning laws violate the U.S. Constitution, the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), and the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) because they burdened churches wishing to occupy property in the city. They argued churches had a harder time getting approved than “clubs and lodges,” “meeting halls,” and “recreation buildings and community centers” – none of which need “special use permits.”

Mauck & Baker represented C.L.U.B. In June 2002 Becket filed an amicus brief in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of Calvary Chapel O’Hare, supporting C.L.U.B. The U.S. Justice Department intervened in the case as well, and also defended RLUIPA, which the lower court had rejected as unconstitutional.

In August 2003, in a 2-1 decision, the Seventh Circuit panel agreed with district court, finding no “substantial burden” placed on churches. Apostle Theodore Wilkinson, Chairman of C.L.U.B., released this statement in response:

“The forty (40) churches in C.L.U.B. and certainly people of all faiths throughout Chicago are outraged by the majority opinion which neuters the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act passed unanimously by Congress in 2000. Also alarming is the Court’s conclusion that Chicago’s religious assemblies have no free speech protection from zoning laws. The majority opinion would apparently extend free speech protection to religious assemblies only if they allowed live nude dancing. The freedoms of speech, religion and assembly of all Chicagoans have all been trumped by aldermanic discretion.”