Federal Bureau of Investigation v. Fikre

Yonas Fikre and the No Fly List 

The FBI placed American citizen Yonas Fikre on the No Fly List, a government database of people who are prohibited from flying through U.S. airspace. According to Fikre, FBI agents questioned him about his mosque in Oregon and offered to remove him from the list if he agreed to become a confidential government informant regarding the mosque, which he declined. The government denied Fikre’s request to take him off the list, and Fikre filed a federal lawsuit arguing that he was being deprived of his right to free travel based on his religious affiliation. 

The FBI backtracks 

After Fikre filed suit, the FBI removed him from the No Fly List. A federal district court then accepted the FBI’s motion to dismiss his case as “moot,” meaning that the court saw the harm to Fikre as no longer ongoing. Fikre appealed that decision to the Ninth Circuit, arguing that his rights were still at stake because the FBI could put him back on the No Fly List at any time. The Ninth Circuit sided with Fikre and reversed the lower court’s decision. In 2023, the government asked the Supreme Court to hear the case and it agreed. 

At the Supreme Court, Fikre argued that his case should not be dismissed because the government offered no assurance that it would not put him back on the No Fly List. The FBI asserted that the Court should trust the government’s word because it had testified that it would not return Fikre to the List “based on currently available information.” 

Becket argues against special treatment for government 

In November of 2023, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case in support of neither party. The brief explains that governments should have to meet a high standard to prove that a legal dispute is no longer live when it reverses policies or activities at issue in a case. Courts should hold governments to the same high standard as private citizens in determining whether their voluntary change in conduct means a case should be dismissed as “moot”.  

Granting governments special treatment would be especially harmful to religious Americans. Federal, state, and local governments frequently make policy changes after being taken to court for violating religious liberty protections to avoid being held accountable. For example, Becket has challenged several versions of the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate in which government officials have used this tactic to attempt to evade religious liberty claims. There is no reason for court to give governments a do-over when they deprive religious Americans of their constitutional rights.  

In March of 2024, the Supreme Court ruled that the government should be held to the same strict standard as everyone else when it attempts to strategically make a case irrelevant. As Justice Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion, “To show that a case is truly moot, a defendant must prove ‘no reasonable expectation’ remains that it will ‘return to [its] own ways…That much holds for governmental defendants no less than for private ones.”  The Court’s reasoning closely tracked the argument in Becket’s brief, emphasizing that the government does not get special treatment in these cases. The decision will help ensure that the government is held accountable for violating Americans’ bedrock freedoms. 

Holt v. Payne

Muslim prisoner secures victory at the High Court 

Abdul Maalik Muhammad is an inmate in Arkansas state prison and a devout Muslim. In 2011, Muhammad sued the Arkansas Department of Corrections when he was denied his ability to maintain a half-inch beard in accordance with his Muslim beliefs. After losing his case in the lower court, Becket and Professor Douglas Laycock of University of Virginia Law School stepped in to represent him at the U.S. Supreme Court. In January 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in Muhammad’s favor, agreeing with Becket that denying his request to grow a religious beard violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a Congressional act passed with bipartisan support in 2000. 

Arkansas continues its campaign against religious inmates 

After his victory at the Supreme Court, the Arkansas Department of Corrections then tried to bar Muhammad from wearing a religiously required cap (kufi) and attending Friday prayer services. Though his prison held up to five different services for different Christian denominations, it refused to hold more than one Quran-based Friday prayer service each week. This forced Muslims like Muhammad and his fellow plaintiffs Rodney Martin and Wayde Earl Stewart to pray alongside adherents of Nation of Islam and Nation of Gods and Earth, who they believe do not share their Islamic beliefs. Muhammad believes that for their Friday prayer service to be valid, it must be led by and limited to Muslim believers. The district court ruled that Muhammad and his fellow Muslim inmates were not sincere in their beliefs because some had occasionally attended mixed prayer services, while others chose to boycott and didn’t attend any services that violated their faith. 

Religious believers are protected behind bars 

Becket filed a friend-of-the-court at the Eighth Circuit brief identifying at least 20 other prison systems that allow inmates like Muhammad to wear their kufi throughout the prison and asking the Court to hold Arkansas to the rigorous standard the Supreme Court set last time around. Although prisoners lose many of their rights when they are imprisoned, they should not be forced to sacrifice their commitment to their faith.  

On November 2, 2023, the Eighth Circuit ruled in favor of Muhammad and his fellow plaintiffs, rebuking the district court for wrongly dismissing many of the plaintiffs’ arguments. The Eighth Circuit reaffirmed the religious liberty standards set by the U.S. Supreme Court and upheld by many other courts of appeals nationwide, and sent the case back down so that the court could apply the correct legal standard.  

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 

Mahmoud v. McKnight

Montgomery County’s Pride Storybooks 

In fall 2022, the Montgomery County Board of Education announced over 20 new “inclusivity” books for its pre-K through eighth grade classrooms. But rather than focusing on basic civility and kindness, these books champion pride parades, gender transitioning, and pronoun preferences for children. For example, one book tasks three- and four-year-olds to search for images from a word list that includes “intersex flag,” “[drag] queen,” “underwear,” “leather,” and the name of a celebrated LGBTQ activist and sex worker. Another encourages fifth graders to discuss what it means to be “non-binary.” Other books advocate a child-knows-best approach to gender transitioning, telling students that a decision to transition doesn’t have to “make sense” and that doctors only “guess” when identifying a newborn’s sex anyway. The teacher’s guide to another book about a playground same-sex romance invites schoolkids to share with classmates how they feel when they “don’t just ‘like’ but … ‘like like’” someone. The curriculum suppresses free speech and independent thinking by having teachers tell students they are “hurtful” if they question these controversial ideologies.  

When the Board first went public with its Pride Storybooks, it assured hundreds of concerned parents they would be notified when the books were read and could opt their children out. This meant parents troubled by the books’ blatant disregard for widely held religious beliefs and scientific perspectives would be respected. Upholding parental rights also meant that children would not be subjected to age-inappropriate instruction against their parents’ wishes. Indeed, in Maryland—as in most states across America—teaching family life and human sexuality requires parental notification and the ability to opt-out. Historically, the Board has respected that law, allowing parents to opt their children out of sex ed classes and controversial readings on related topics. The Board’s own “Guidelines” regarding religious diversity go even further. They guarantee that parents may seek opt-outs and alternative assignments for their children on a wide range of potential classroom activities, discussions, and reading assignments.

“Inclusion” as exclusion of parents 

Everything changed in March 2023, when the School Board issued a statement saying it would no longer notify parents or honor requests to opt-out. Immediately, parents of the more than 70,000 elementary schoolkids in Montgomery County were denied their right to decide when their elementary-aged children would be exposed to books promoting transgender and queer ideology. One Board member justified the decision by claiming that allowing opt-outs because these books “offend[] your religious rights or your family values or your core beliefs is just telling [your] kid, ‘Here’s another reason to hate another person.’”  

Soon after, a diverse coalition of religious parents including Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Christians, and others began to fight back. While coming from different faith backgrounds, these parents all believe the books are age-inappropriate, harmful to children, and portray notions of sex and gender that conflict with their religious beliefs and sound science. Though they have many different beliefs, these parents are united in protecting their right to direct their children’s religious and intellectual education on such sensitive matters regarding family life and human sexuality.   

The law protects parents’ right to guide their children’s education 

The Board cannot refuse parents who want to opt their children out of instruction that violates their religious beliefs on sensitive matters. The Board is unlawfully coming between parents and their kids and targeting them because of their religious beliefs about gender and sexuality.  That violates the Board’s own policies, Maryland law, and the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court has held that children are not wards of the state, and that parents have the right to make key decisions about the education of their children on such critical matters concerning family life and human sexuality. 

After filing the lawsuit on May 24, 2023, the district court ruled against the parents. They appealed the decision to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, and on May 15, 2024, the appellate court ruled to keep the school board’s no-notice, no-opt-out policy. 

Importance to Religious Liberty: 

Parental Rights: Parents have the right to direct the religious upbringing of their children. Teachings around family life and human sexuality lie at the heart of most religions. Becket defends the right of parents to opt their children out of one-sided indoctrination on such matters when it conflicts with their religious beliefs and sound principles of science. 

Smith v. Ward

RLUIPA allows prisoners to seek God 

The peaceful expression of religion is an important aspect of human culture, and can provide important and unique benefits for prisoners and society alike. Studies have shown that allowing prisoners to connect with their faith helps with rehabilitation, ensures that they can reintegrate into society when released, and reduces recidivism. For decades, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) has protected the religious freedom of inmates. It has enabled Jewish inmates to obey kosher diets, Catholics to access to important sacraments, and practitioners of many faiths to possess religious texts.

In 2015, the Supreme Court unanimously confirmed the importance of protecting prisoners’ religious exercise, holding in Holt v. Hobbs that Arkansas was required to accommodate a Muslim prisoner’s request for a half-inch beard. As the Supreme Court in Holt explained, RLUIPA is a crucial protection for religious prisoners, ensuring that religious exercise is not arbitrarily burdened by prison officials. Instead, prison officials must explain—with supporting evidence—why they cannot accommodate the sincere religious exercise of an inmate. This burden is especially demanding when most other prison systems safely provide the same accommodation. Unfortunately, some courts and prison systems did not get the Supreme Court’s message in Holt v. Hobbs.  

The Eleventh Circuit ignores Holt v. Hobbs 

In 2012, Lester Smith filed a lawsuit after his request to the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDOC) to grow a full-length beard was denied, a request that most prison systems would allow. As a devout Muslim, Mr. Smith believes that an untrimmed beard is required by his faith. But the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Mr. Smith, claiming that it was enough for GDOC to say that it is more risk-averse than 39 other prison systems, and that allowing beards creates some additional risk. In essence, GDOC can write its own permission slip to violate Mr. Smith’s rights. 

In reaching its decision, the Eleventh Circuit relied on its 2015 decision in Knight v. Thompson, where Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief. Knight was flatly inconsistent with both Holt v. Hobbs and the way that other courts around the country have interpreted RLUIPA. In Mr. Smith’s case, the Eleventh Circuit has doubled down on that wrong position. 

At the Supreme Court   

On April 28, 2022, Becket, along with Scott Ballenger and Sarah Shalf of the University of Virginia Appellate Litigation Clinic, filed a petition to the Supreme Court on behalf of Mr. Smith, asking the Court to protect this inmate’s religious expression under the rule of Holt v. Hobbs. The ruling in Holt taught us that a prison must offer enough proof that it cannot provide the same accommodation practices set by other institutions. If 39 other prison systems can allow untrimmed beards without incident, that is conclusive evidence that a longer beard is not detrimental to the safety and security of Georgia’s prisons. Courts also cannot blindly defer to prison officials’ preferences if religious accommodations are possible.  

The Supreme Court laid out a clear rule in Holt, saying that prisons should be inclined to withdraw existing accommodations if they are abused rather than denying them outright. But no such misbehavior is present here. Mr. Smith has the right to follow his sincere beliefs and grow his beard.  

On October 3, 2022, the Supreme Court declined to review the decision below in this case. 

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Individual freedom: A fundamental part of human dignity is recognizing the human desire for religious faith.
  • RLUIPA: The federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act – passed, like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), with strong bipartisan support – protects the human dignity of prisoners by ensuring that their religious liberty is protected and bans discriminatory land-use rules that are often used to prevent disfavored groups from building houses of worship.  

Katsareas v. United States Navy

How does an Australian living in Qatar decide to enlist in the United States military?  

When Leo Katsareas was a teenager in Australia, he found himself drawn to Islam as a path to Providence and a vehicle for protecting the inalienable rights of others and opposing all forms of oppression. At age sixteen, he converted and began living as a practicing Muslim. Later, as a young adult living abroad, Leo studied the American founding era, reading the texts of the Founding Fathers and the United States Constitution. He fell in love with America’s history, its principles, and particularly its commitment to freedom. He vowed to one day come to the United States and serve in the military.

Since then, Leo has done just that. After immigrating to the United States, he spent time working for the government, defending the American people and the freedom he loves by helping uncover and prevent significant terrorist threats both domestically and abroad. In 2016, he joined the United States military as he had promised, enlisting in the Navy. In his years of service, Leo has served on ships domestically and internationally becoming a Mass Communication Specialist in 2019. He works tirelessly for his adopted country while living out his Islamic faith.

A call to serve God and a call to serve Country  

A convert to Islam, Leo Katsareas believes that his faith requires him to wear a four-inch beard. This belief has led him to consistently seek accommodations from the Navy’s strict grooming policies. While on a ship in the Red Sea, MC3 Katsareas received a temporary “chit” — a note of permission — that allowed him to keep a beard. And at his last duty station, his commanding officers granted him a partial, quarter-inch accommodation, consistent with the exemptions given to those with medical needs. However, he was told that even this limited permission was not permanent, and he would need to reapply at any future stations of duty.

Grooming policies of the United States Military are designed to prevent safety threats and ensure that uniforms aren’t compromised. In the case of a fire on a ship, for example, Navy personnel might need to quickly don effective masks. MC3 Katsareas agrees that in a life or death situation, he may have to shave his beard and is willing to do so in the interests of his own safety and that of his fellow Sailors. However, he has been able to wear a mask with no issue, including during combat actions in 2016, where he was assigned to his ship’s firefighting party when it came under guided missile fire by Houthi insurgents in Yemen, as well as in other firefighting training situations. Additionally, in recent years the Army and Air Force have both updated their grooming policies in recent years to accommodate religious minorities. The Navy has failed to keep up.

Despite the absence of significant safety concerns that can’t be worked around, and despite broad religious accommodations granted by the other branches of the United States military, the Navy initially denied MC3 Katsareas’s recent request for a full accommodation that would allow him to grow a substantial beard in accordance with his Islamic faith. With Becket’s help, MC3 Katsareas launched an internal appeal of the Navy’s denial, seeking to defend the American freedom he fell in love with: the right to practice one’s religion in the public square, including while serving one’s country.

Protecting religious minorities from unjust exclusion 

In April 2020, the Navy denied Leo’s seventh request for an accommodation for a fist-length beard. In May 2020, Leo appealed the denial, represented by Becket. On July 15, 2020, the Navy reconsidered and granted Leo a temporary, revocable accommodation, informing him that he can maintain his full religiously motivated beard and remain in good standing with the United States Navy while in his current duty assignment. In doing so, the Navy acted in accordance with the accommodation policies of other branches of the military and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

Passed by a bipartisan Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1993 with the support of an extensive coalition of religious and civil rights leaders, RFRA prohibits the military from suppressing an individual’s sincere religious exercise without a compelling government reason.

Becket has successfully defended members of the U.S. military seeking religious accommodations a number of times. In 2015, Becket filed suit alongside the Sikh Coalition and the law firm McDermott Will & Emery on behalf of Captain Simratpal “Simmer” Singh, a committed Sikh and long-time captain in the U.S. Army, in Singh v. Carter, securing him temporary protections for his religious beard and turban. Becket filed a similar suit in 2016 in Singh v. McConville, representing three Sikh servicemen in the Army also seeking to serve without abandoning the marks of their faith. In response to the court ruling in Singh v. Carter and the suit in Singh v. McConville, the Army issued new regulations in 2017 stating that Sikh soldiers would not be forced to abandon articles of their faith throughout their military careers, thus making the victory for religious minorities serving their country a permanent one. Despite the Army’s new regulations, West Point did not automatically accommodate the religious beliefs of its cadets. In August 2017, Becket filed a lawsuit on behalf of two Sikh cadets slated to attend West Point. In court, West Point admitted that it did not have a compelling reason to deny Sikhs the ability to serve, and issued new guidelines that would allow Sikh cadets to maintain their articles of faith while serving at the Academy.

The Navy ought to follow the example of the Army and Air Force and America’s founding principles in recognizing and accommodating the religious belief of its service members and protecting the place of religion in the public square for all Americans. Service to country need not prevent service to God.

Importance to Religious Liberty: 

Individual freedomAn individual’s religious exercise encompasses more than just belief or worship — it involves visibly practicing the signs of one’s faith. Religious freedom protects the rights of individuals to observe their faith at all times — including while defending the freedom of all Americans by serving in the armed forces.  

Public SquareReligion is natural to human beings and to human culture. Because of this, religious expression cannot be limited to the private sphere, but can, and should, have a place in the public square.  

RFRAThe government — and, consequently, the military — cannot burden religious exercise of individuals or groups to violate their deeply held beliefs without compelling interest or when there are reasonable alternatives. 

Tanzin v. Tanvir

Targeted for their faith

Muhammad Tanvir, Jameel Algibhah and Naveed Shinwari are three American Muslim men who were allegedly approached by FBI agents, who asked the men to serve as informants against fellow Muslims. However, their religious beliefs prevented the men from assisting the FBI in this way.

Abuse of power

After the three men declined to serve as informants for the FBI they were allegedly placed on the No Fly List—a record of individuals deemed to be terrorist threats to the United States and therefore not permitted to fly. According to their court filings, they were on this list for several years.

The three men sued the FBI agents, arguing that they had coercively abused the use of the No Fly List and, in doing so, had violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) by burdening their religious exercise.

Just four days before the men got their day in court, the FBI said the men were free to fly, then asked the court to dismiss the case and leave the men without any legal recourse.

Just recourse for religious discrimination

The district court ruled that the men had no standing to sue because their names had been removed from the No Fly List. They appealed the case to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which rightly ruled in favor of the Muslim men, finding that they had the ability to vindicate their rights in court.

The FBI agents appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that cannot be held liable for placing the men on the No Fly List.

Frequently, the government changes laws or reverses its behavior to avoid legal trouble. This is a dangerous precedent that allows the government to get away with egregious actions, then deny victims just recourse for the harms they’ve faced. Becket is arguing that to hold the government accountable for unjust actions, individual government actors must be able to be held liable for violating religious freedom under RFRA.

The Supreme Court agreed to review the Second Circuit’s decision in Tanzin v. Tanvir on November 22, 2019. On February 12, 2020, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of broad protections under RFRA and allowing those whose rights are violated to seek money damages for RFRA claims. The Court heard oral arguments in the case on October 6, 2020 and ruled on December 10, 2020 that the men are entitled to sue for financial relief, saying that it is sometimes the only form of relief that can remedy government violations of religious freedom.

Importance to Religious Liberty:
Individual Freedom— The government shouldn’t be able to get out of legal trouble by changing laws and policies when it knows it’s about to lose in court. 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 responsible.

Trump v. Hawaii

In 2017, President Donald Trump issued a series of executive orders banning entry for citizens of certain Muslim-majority countries. Becket filed an amicus brief when one of the orders came before the Supreme Court last year in Trump v. International Refugee Assistance Project. In January 2018, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Trump v. Hawaii, arguing that the federal courts should rely on the Free Exercise Clause, not the Establishment Clause, to resolve claims of religious targeting of Muslims. 

The notorious Lemon test is an ahistorical Establishment Clause test that asks judges to evaluate the state of mind of lawmakers rather than analyzing whether the government is creating an establishment of religion. Becket argues in its brief that when analyzing claims that the government is targeting particular religious people for disfavor, courts should use the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to decide the claims instead.

On June 26, the Supreme Court ruled on separate grounds, holding that the Establishment Clause did not apply with the same force to foreign nationals seeking entry to the United States. 

Importance to religious liberty: 

  • The Free Exercise Clause: The Free Exercise Clause protects religious people from government targeting because of their religious beliefs.  
  • Establishment Clause: The ahistorical Lemon test depends heavily on speculations about the state of mind of a single government official —this case should instead be evaluated under the Free Exercise Clause. 

Trump v. International Refugee Assistance Project

In March 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order banning entry for ninety days by citizens from six majority Muslim countries, raising serious religious freedom concerns. Plaintiffs brought lawsuits against the executive order, and the lawsuits have traveled all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Becket has a long track record of defending people of all faiths, including Muslims. In 2015, Becket won the historic Supreme Court victory in Holt v. Hobbs, which protected the religious freedom rights of Muslim prisoners. We believe that to protect people of faith, particularly religious minorities like Muslims, Native Americans, and Sikhs, it is vital that legal precedent is set properly. But the ACLU and other groups in Trump v. International Refugee Assistance Project have litigated their case under the wrong part of the Constitution. They are challenging the travel ban using the notorious Lemon test – a widely discredited set of criteria that creates confusion – and weak law— for important religious freedom cases. The Lemon test is particularly disliked by the Supreme Court because it forces judges to psychoanalyze the intent of policymakers at the time they wrote the law.

Instead, when the government targets a religious group for punishment or mistreatment, courts should use the laws that are designed to deal with burdens on religious exercise, namely the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Unlike Lemon, these laws have objective tests designed to root out religious targeting and protect religious minorities.

It is only possible to get cases like this right if courts are using the correct legal standards. Deciding religious freedom cases using the correct laws is the best way to achieve a truly just outcome both for the Muslim plaintiffs and for all Americans who have First Amendment protections. 

In June 2017 the Supreme Court announced that it would hear Trump v. IRAP and Trump v. Hawaii as a consolidated case. After oral argument was scheduled for October 10, 2017, the executive order expired and the Court dismissed both cases as moot, vacating the lower courts’ decisions including any Lemon test analysis.

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.

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.

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.

EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores

Meet Samantha Elauf   

Samantha Elauf is a fashion blogger who takes her faith seriously. When she was 17, she sought a job at her local mall’s Abercrombie & Fitch. She knew the company dress code prohibited hats but had previously hired a Jewish employee who wore a yarmulke, so she never imagined that her headscarf might be an issue.

The store manager who interviewed Samantha liked her and recommended that she be hired. But when the district manager learned about Samantha’s headscarf, he made the store manager lower Samantha’s scores so she would appear unqualified.

Blatant Discrimination

Abercrombie does have a policy that prohibits employees from wearing hats, but they’ve made religious accommodations numerous times in the past. But rather than acknowledge that their district manager erred in refusing to accommodate Samantha, Abercrombie claims she should not be protected by the Civil Rights Act—which prohibits employment discrimination on the grounds of race, national origin, sex, and religion—because she never “explicitly” confirmed in her interview that she wore the scarf for religious reasons. In short, Abercrombie refused to hire Samantha because of her Muslim faith, and now they want a free pass for discrimination.

But anti-discrimination laws have been on the books for over fifty years. These are the same laws championed by Martin Luther King, Jr. that protect our civil rights from discrimination to this day. Abercrombie blatantly denied Samantha Elauf a job on the basis of her religion, and that should not go unchallenged.

In 2011, a federal district court judge ruled in Samantha’s favor, but in October 2013, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. On October 2, 2014, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear Samantha’s case.

Protecting Religious Diversity

Becket became involved in this lawsuit for the first time at the Supreme Court. Becket champions religious diversity and defends Samantha’s right to bring her religious identity into her workplace. Religious expression is invaluable and inseparable from the human experience. No American should be forced to leave their faith at the door when they enter the workplace, especially when their religious activity has no impact on their employer’s business. Society will only benefit from protecting religious diversity everywhere, even at the mall.

On December 11, 2014, Becket filed an amicus brief in this case. On February 25, 2015, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in this case.

On June 1, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of religious job seekers. The Court held that a job seeker suing for religious discrimination only has to show that their need for a religious accommodation–such as wearing a headscarf–was a “motivating factor” in the employer’s decision not to hire. Even if the employer is not certain the applicant needs a religious accommodation, they can be liable if they suspect there is a need for religious accommodation and reject the job applicant for that reason. This Supreme Court ruling requires that employers be mindful of the potential religious needs of job applicants and not let the possible need for a religious accommodation influence their employment decisions.

The Solicitor General and Department of Justice represented Samantha.


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.”

Richardson Independent School District, Texas

Schoolchildren should never be forced to choose between respectfully practicing their religion and obeying the law. Yet in 2005, that was the dilemma that confronted a group of Muslim high school students in Richardson, Texas, who were threatened with expulsion for saying their midday prayers.

At the beginning of the school year, several Muslim students approached administrators to make sure they would be able to continue their daily midday prayers, as they had been allowed to do in the past. School administrators granted such permission, and arranged for them to use an empty lecture hall for the prayer. For two weeks, the students prayed peacefully for three minutes each day, causing no disruptions or inconveniences. Two teachers noticed and complained, and several days later two assistant principals and a police officer confronted the students when they went to pray. The students were told that school policy prohibited them from praying anywhere on campus.

A few days after that, the school slightly modified its ban. Under the new policy, some observant Muslim students would be forced to choose between eating lunch or praying during the lunch period. The daily prayer only lasts three minutes, and the lunch period is half an hour – yet if a student chose to pray, he or she would not be allowed to eat lunch and would be forced to go hungry for the day. Other observant students were still not permitted to pray within the time frame set by their faith because of their assigned lunch period.

Becket intervened on behalf of the students, and Richardson Independent School District eventually revised its policy to allow students of all faiths to pray on school grounds, resulting in a victory for all students of faith in that district.

Islamic Council of Victoria v. Catch the Fire Ministries, Inc.

In some parts of the world, leading a peaceful religious discussion may come at a frighteningly high cost. Pastors Daniel Scot and Danny Nalliah learned that Australia was one of those parts of the world after facing the threat of jail time for their involvement in seminars and publications about Islam from a Christian perspective.

And what exactly was their crime? The pastors had explained their interpretation of the basic tenets of Islam, how Christians could dialogue with Muslims, and particularly taught that while they did not agree with or believe to be true the teachings of Islam, Christians are called to love, and not hate, Muslims. Yet they were convicted of doing just the opposite: a court concluded that they were “inciting hatred” with their “unreasonable” and “unbalanced” teachings.

The ensuing ordeal was the result of a bill that had good intentions but disastrous effects. In 2001 the Australian province of Victoria passed the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act (“Act”), which prohibits conduct that incites hatred, serious contempt, revulsion or severe ridicule of a person or group of people based on religious belief. However, instead of protecting religion and public harmony, the Act as applied has created social division and the censorship of sincerely held religious beliefs by force of law. Neighbor spies upon neighbor looking for offense in one another’s speech.

On December 17, 2004, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal determined that Pastors Scot and Nalliah violated the Act. The Tribunal not only found the pastors in breach of the Act but also ordered the pastors publicly to apologize for their sincerely-held beliefs and promise never to repeat those beliefs.
These actions were in direct violation of international law. Australia is obliged by international conventions to protect rights of conscience, freedom of expression, and equal protection under the law as Australia has ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and its enforcement mechanism, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The free speech, belief, and religious exercise provisions of Articles 18, 19, and 26 in the ICCPR protect the right freely to preach about and analyze religious truth-claims of competing religions.

Contrary to these laws, the Act empowers the secular government to censor religious expression based on its own determination of the correctness of a believer’s religious views. In other words, the Victorian courts have become sermon review boards; serving as the arbiters of orthodoxy by determining the boundaries of “valid” religious belief for each faith community.

From April to August 2005, the Becket Fund, joined by a diverse coalition of organizations, exchanged letters with the Attorney General of Australia, urging the government to intervene before the Tribunal issued penalties that would jeopardize Australia’s laudable human rights record and commitment to international law.

On August 14, Australian attorneys, with the assistance of The Becket Fund on international law arguments, submitted appeals papers to the Supreme Court of Victoria at Melbourne. The Court upheld the appeal and ruled in favor of Daniel Scot and Danny Nalliah, vacating the original ruling and ordering the trial to be heard again in front of a different judge. Pastors Scot and Nalliah no longer face the threat of jail, and are free to preach as they see fit–without apologizing.

Juma Mosque Congregation of Baku v. Azerbaijan

This is a case about church autonomy – the right of religious groups to organize themselves as they see fit. This right includes the right of houses of worship to choose their leaders without government interference.

During the Soviet Union, the oldest Mosque in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan – called the Juma Mosque—was turned into a carpet museum. Most other mosques were torn down.

In 1991, right after Azerbaijan had gained its independence from the Soviet Union, then-President Elchibey decreed that all former mosques, churches, and other houses of worship should be restored to their original, religious functions. A group of Muslim believers began worshipping in the Juma Mosque at that time and registered themselves as a “religious organization” under the law, once with the Baku city government, and once with the Ministry of Justice. Then, for 10 years, the members of the Juma Mosque Congregation were allowed to worship in peace.

However, in 2001, a new more authoritarian government began asserting control over the mosque, attempting to install its own imam (preaching minister) instead of the one that already led the mosque, democracy and human rights activist Ilgar Allahverdiev. The mosque congregation rejected the government’s demand that it submit to control by the Caucasus Muslims Board, an organization once headed by Joseph Stalin.

The mosque successfully resisted until 2004, when the government sent troops into the mosque during prayer services and forcibly removed everyone. The mosque was then surrounded by a fence and “closed for repairs.”

After suing for relief in the government-controlled Azerbaijan courts and finding no success, in 2004 the mosque asked Becket to represent it in an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The Juma Mosque Congregation case represents an important church autonomy case for all religious groups and all of Europe. If the government can force a mosque or a church or a rabbi to accept a government-appointed minister, then the mosque has become a prisoner of the state. The European Court of Human Rights should vindicate this important, and basic principle of human rights.

Fraternal Order of Police v. City of Newark

Police officers who serve their city and their faith

Faruq Abdul-Aziz and Shakoor Mustafa are devout Sunni Muslims whose faith requires them to grow a beard. For over a decade, they served as police officers in the Newark Police Department while maintaining a beard without incident. In 1999, however, the Chief of Police decided to enforce a 1971 policy requiring officers to be clean-shaven. But this policy exempted those who had medical reasons for not shaving. The policy even permitted mustaches and sideburns, and allowed officers to wear beards when undercover. Yet it did not allow beards for religious reasons, so the department initiated disciplinary actions against the Muslim police officers.

Unanimous victory for people of all faiths

Becket works to ensure that when governments grant accommodations for non-religious reasons, they provide the same accommodations for religious reasons as well. In this case, the City of Newark had no justification for its policy requiring religious police officers be clean-shaven when it allowed officers to have beards for numerous other reasons. Mr. Aziz and Mr. Mustafa were forced to choose between their faith and careers—a choice no American should have to make. So instead, they  went to federal district court seeking protection from this unconstitutional choice, and they won.

Then the city appealed. In June 1998 Becket president Seamus Hasson argued the case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, supported by a group of amici including the ACLU and the Anti-Defamation League. On March 3, 1999, the Third Circuit unanimously ruled in favor of the officers, stating that the department’s policy violated their religious freedom under the First Amendment. Then-Third Circuit Judge Samuel Alito wrote the opinion, holding that the city’s grooming policy created a “categorical exemption for individuals with a secular objection but not for individuals with a religious objection,” and was thus subject to the highest form of scrutiny, which the city failed to satisfy.

Victorious, the officers were able to continue serving without violating their faith. Their case set an important precedent for people of all faiths who’d might otherwise be forced to choose between their career and their religion.

On October 4, 1999, the Supreme Court denied the city’s petition for certiorari.

Importance to religious liberty:

  • Individual freedom: Religious freedom protects the rights of individuals to observe their faith at all times, including in the workplace. No American should have to choose between their career and following their religious beliefs, especially those who serve on the police force.
  • Public Square: Because religion is natural to human beings, it is natural to human culture. It can, and should, have an equal place in the public square.