Stories

Meet Pastor Soto, a Native American feather dancer in Texas

In 2006, undercover federal agents—in an investigation they called “Operation PowWow”—infiltrated a Native American religious ceremony led by Robert Soto, a Lipan Apache religious leader in Texas. His crime? Possessing eagle feathers, which are central to Mr. Soto’s Native American faith. The federal government prohibits possession of eagle feathers without a permit and only grants permits to museums, scientists, zoos, farmers, and federally enrolled tribes. As a Lipan Apache, Mr. Soto doesn’t qualify — even though the Lipan Apache people are recognized by the State of Texas, historians and sociologists, they have not been officially enrolled by the federal government. And for the crime of possessing eagle feathers without a permit, Mr. Soto faced 15 years in a federal penitentiary and a $250,000 fine. Mr. Soto turned to RFRA for protection and in 2015 federal agents returned his feathers. In 2016, the federal government entered a historic settlement agreement with Mr. Soto and over 400 members of his congregation, recognizing their right to freely use eagle feathers in observance of their Native American faith. (Watch video here)

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Meet Captain Simmer Singh, a U.S. Army Bronze Star Recipient

U.S. Army Captain Simmer Singh has served the U.S. Army with excellence for nearly a decade, completing both Ranger School and Special Forces Assessment and Selection Courses, and receiving a Bronze Star for clearing IEDs in Afghanistan. Captain Singh is devout in his Sikh faith and wears a full turban and uncut beard—two core “articles of faith” in the Sikh religion—but cannot do so while serving the country. This is despite the fact that nearly 50,000 soldiers already have medical accommodations from the Army’s beard regulations. Under RFRA, Captain Singh won protection from discriminatory testing and obtained an accommodation, allowing him to serve his country with a religious beard and turban in place.

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Meet Specialist Kanwar Singh, Specialist Harpal Singh, and Private Arjan Ghotra, three Sikh soldiers

Specialist Kanwar Singh was highly regarded for his ROTC service during college and achieved the highest possible score on the military entrance exam when applying to join the Massachusetts Army National Guard. Specialist Harpal Singh is fluent in Punjabi, Hindi, and Urdu, all three of which are highly sought after by the Army, and has significant expertise in telecommunications technologies. Private Arjan Ghotra is a seventeen-year-old high school senior who joined the Virginia Army National Guard after serving for several years in the Civil Air Patrol and the Virginia Defense Force. All three men exemplify the values of the Army, yet all three have faced discrimination for growing a beard according to their faith. Thanks to RFRA, the Army took the historic step toward allowing these three Sikh soldiers to serve in the military at least long enough for them to complete their Initial Military Training.

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Meet Arnold Abbott, feeding the homeless in Florida

For over twenty years, ninety-year old veteran Arnold Abbott has worked with a small team of volunteers to feed the homeless in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Mr. Abbott is motivated by his belief in the “fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man” and welcomes all people, those with religious faiths or none, to work with him to reach out with compassion to homeless men, women, and children. Mr. Abbott made headlines in 2014 when police arrested him three times for violating city laws about outdoor feedings, but that’s not the first time he has had to deal with government opposition. When Mr. Abbott faced a similar challenge in 2001, he turned to Florida’s RFRA for protection—and won. Now he’s relying on his 2001 victory to challenge Fort Lauderdale’s latest crackdown.

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Meet Congregation Kol Ami, a Reform Jewish community in Pennsylvania

Since 1994, Congregation Kol Ami, a Reform Jewish synagogue, had been gathering for prayer, teaching, and fellowship in the Philadelphia suburbs. Eventually, the growing congregation bought property from the Roman Catholic Sisters of Nazareth. But the zoning board denied them permission to use the property for religious purposes because it was in an area zoned for residential use – even though the zoning rules would have permitted a country club! Congregation Kol Ami challenged the zoning rules under RLUIPA, and won.

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Meet Pine Hill Zendo, a Buddhist temple in New York

Pine Hill Zendo is one of just a handful of Rinzai Zen Buddhist temples in North America that has a resident teacher. For a few hours four days a week, the Zendo’s eleven members gather at a home in Bedford, New York for silent meditation, brief liturgies and instruction. In 2001, however, a neighbor complained to the town planning board, and the board held a hearing. Some neighbors admitted that they didn’t even realize the Zendo existed, but others speculated that parking and traffic issues could develop. The board rejected Pine Hill’s request to continue using their property in this way, citing potential problems with traffic, parking, and —incredibly — noise. Pine Hill challenged the town’s decision in court, and the town settled, allowing these Buddhists to continue silent meditation in peace.

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Meet Curtis DeVeaux, a Muslim firefighter in Pennsylvania

Curtis DeVeaux is a firefighter in Philadelphia whose Muslim faith is deeply important to him. The fire department suspended him without pay when he grew a beard required by his faith. Mr. DeVeaux sought the protection of Pennsylvania’s RFRA and showed that other city fire departments had safely accommodated bearded firefighters. The court ruled that Mr. DeVeaux could practice his faith on the job.

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Meet Adriel Arocha, a Native American kindergartener in Texas

Adriel Arocha, a Native American kindergartner in Texas, was ordered by his school to cut his hair, which he wore in a braid for religious reasons. His school had general grooming policies, including that “[b]oys’ hair shall not cover any part of the ear or touch the top of the standard collar in back.” The school turned down his parents’ request for permission to wear a braid. The Arocha family turned to the Texas RFRA for protection, and won.

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Meet the Irshad Learning Center, a place for the Muslim community in Illinois

For years, members of the Irshad Learning Center, a Muslim community, had met in borrowed space. When Irshad bought a former school on three acres of land, its members looked forward to being able to teach their children about Islam in a place all their own. But the local zoning board refused to issue Irshad a permit, even after Irshad’s members repeatedly offered to meet the board’s conditions. Irshad turned to RLUIPA and the Illinois RFRA for help, and won. A federal court held that the zoning board had substantially burdened their Muslim faith.

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Meet UDV, a Brazilian Christian Spiritist group in New Mexico

O Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal (UDV) is a Christian Spiritist religion that originated in Brazil and is now practiced by over 17,000 people in six countries. UDV members participate in the sacrament of drinking huasca, a hallucinogenic tea that contains a substance banned under federal drug laws. After federal agents seized a shipment of the tea, UDV members turned to RFRA for protection. In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the government could not make an exception for UDV, as it already had for other religious groups like the Native American Church, whose members use peyote in religious rituals.

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Meet Kawal Tagore, a faithful Sikh in Texas

IRS accountant Kawal Tagore wanted to be able to practice her Sikh faith, which includes carrying the five articles of faith that Sikhism requires. One of those is a kirpan, “an emblem resembling a small knife with a blunt, curved blade” that reminds Sikhs of their commitment to justice. But when Ms. Tagore brought her kirpan to work at a federal building in Houston, she was told to go home and not return. The Federal Protective Service allow scissors, knives, box cutters and other items with sharper and longer blades than a kirpan into the federal building, but it wouldn’t let Ms. Tagore carry her religiously-required kirpan. As a result of the Federal Protective Service’s policy, she was eventually fired. Ms. Tagore turned to RFRA for protection and in 2014, as a result of her lawsuit, the government changed its nationwide policies to accommodate Sikh federal employees.

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Meet Abdul Muhammad, a Muslim inmate in Arkansas

Abdul Muhammad is a Muslim inmate in Arkansas. He asked Arkansas prison officials to allow him to grow a 1/2 inch beard, as his faith requires. Arkansas permits beards for other reasons, and 44 state and federal prison systems allowed short beards for religious reasons, but state officials turned Mr. Muhammad down. Mr. Muhammad turned to RLUIPA for protection and in the 2015 case Holt v. Hobbs, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in his favor.  (Watch video here)

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Meet José Merced, a Santeria priest in Texas

Santería priest, José Merced, carried out religiously-required animal sacrifices in Euless, Texas, for 16 years before city authorities ordered him to stop. City laws allowed restaurants, butchers, and hunters to have dead animals – but would not permit the same to religious practitioners. Mr. Merced turned to the Texas RFRA for protection, and won.

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Meet Peter Ventura, a Christian inmate sharing his faith in Connecticut

Peter Ventura was an inmate in Connecticut state prison. His faith in Jesus Christ had changed his life. Prison officials allowed other inmates to bring playing cards and dominoes into the recreational areas, but they told Mr. Ventura that he could not bring his Bible with him, or even gather with other inmates to pray informally and talk about their faith. State officials tried to have his case dismissed, but a state judge ruled that Connecticut’s RFRA gave Mr. Ventura the right to challenge the prison’s policies in court.

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Meet Chosen 300 Ministries, feeding the homeless in Pennsylvania

Thousands of homeless people live in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park system, and for nearly two decades, religious ministries have partnered to provide Philadelphia’s homeless with free food. All of this was threatened when city officials passed strict new rules for distributing food in public parks – regulations that would have ended many of these food-sharing ministries’ good work. The ministries joined together and sought the protection of Pennsylvania’s RFRA, and won.

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Meet Philemon Homes, a place for people released from prison in Texas

Philemon Homes is a Christian ministry that provides housing and religious instruction to petty offenders released from Texas prisons. Philemon Homes served the Sinton, Texas community for years with no complaints, but in 1999 some Sinton residents expressed opposition to Philemon’s work, and the City Council passed a law that banned Philemon from operating in the city. Philemon Homes turned to the Texas RFRA and other laws for protection, and won.

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Meet Steven Lee Hyde, a Native American inmate in Idaho

Steven Lee Hyde was banned from practicing his Native American faith in Idaho state prison. Although the prison he was in had a long history of accommodating Native American religious practices like sweat lodges, a warden shut down the programs in the 1990s, and officials told Mr. Hyde that he could not take part in important religious ceremonies unless he could find an outside religious volunteer to oversee them. No volunteers were available, meaning Mr. Hyde was effectively unable to practice his faith. Mr. Hyde turned to RLUIPA and the Idaho RFRA for protection, and the state court ruled that the prison had to allow religious ceremonies supervised by its own staff.

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Meet David and Barbara Green, running a family business in Oklahoma

When David and Barbara Green started their family craft store in their garage, they promised to run their business in a way that reflected their Christian faith. Forty years later, they are true to that promise—although their Hobby Lobby craft stores are now a prosperous national chain, they still care for their employees by closing on Sundays and paying starting salaries nearly twice the minimum wage. The Greens, who are pro-life, have always excluded abortions from their generous employee health plan. So when the federal government ordered them to cover life-ending contraceptive drugs in violation of their deeply-held religious beliefs, they turned to the federal RFRA—and won. (Watch video here)

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Meet the Little Sisters of the Poor, caring for the elderly in Colorado and across the country

The Little Sisters of the Poor are an international order of Roman Catholic nuns who spend their lives serving the elderly poor. Their Catholic faith permeates everything they do—including the health care plans that they provide to their employees. The Sisters’ benefits provider, the Christian Brothers Trust, is a Catholic organization that provides the Little Sisters and more than 400 other Catholic charities with health care plans that reflects their common faith. When the federal government ordered the Little Sisters to let their Catholic health care plan be used as a vehicle for delivering contraceptives in violation of their faith, they turned to the federal RFRA for protection. Their case is now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. (Watch video here)

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Meet Iknoor Singh, a Sikh college student in New York

Iknoor Singh is a student at Hofstra University and an observant Sikh. Following the tenets of his faith, he does not shave his hair or beard, and he wears a turban. Mr. Singh applied for the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Program (ROTC), but was rejected in 2014 after the Army refused to provide him with a religious accommodation. He challenged the Army’s decision under RFRA, and in 2015 he won a victory at the district court.

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