Civil Rights Division
Outreach and Enforcement Efforts to Protect the Civil Rights of Muslim, Sikh, Arab and South Asian Americans
The Department of Justice is actively working to protect Muslim, Sikh, Arab and South Asian Americans from threats and violence directed at them because of their religion or ethnicity, and to prevent acts of discrimination against them in the workplace, schools, and many other areas.
Since 9/11, the Department of Justice has investigated over 800 incidents involving violence, threats, vandalism and arson against persons perceived to be Muslim or to be of Arab, Middle Eastern, and South-Asian origin. The Civil Rights Division and U.S Attorneys offices have brought prosecutions against 53 defendants in such cases, with 47 convictions to date. Additionally, DOJ attorneys have coordinated with state and local prosecutors in numerous non- federal criminal prosecutions, in many cases providing substantial assistance.
Examples of prosecutions:
- On August 25, 2011, a grand jury indicted an Oregon man for allegedly setting fire to the Salman Alfarisi Islamic Center in Corvallis, Oregon in November 2010. Trial is set for October 24, 2011.
- On August 20, 2011, a former employee of the Transportation Security Administration pleaded guilty to federal hate crime charges for assaulting an elderly Somali man in May 2010 based on his race, national origin and religion.
- On February 23, 2011, an Arlington Texas man pleaded guilty to setting fire to playground equipment at a mosque in July 2010.
- Three Tennessee men pleaded guilty to spray painting swastikas and “white power” on a mosque in Columbia, Tennessee, and then starting a fire that completely destroyed the mosque. In 2009, two of the men were sentenced to more than 14 and 15 years in prison. On April 22, 2010, a third man was sentenced to more than 6 years in prison for his role in the crime.
- On March 11, 2010, a husband and wife were convicted of harassing with ethnic slurs and assaulting an Indian-American couple while they were using a public beach in South Lake Tahoe. The male victim suffered multiple broken facial bones. On June 30, 2010, the defendants were sentenced to 18 months incarceration each.
Other Civil Rights Enforcement
The Department of Justice enforces a wide range of laws protecting against discrimination based on religion and ethnicity.
• Employment Discrimination – The Department is working to protect the fundamental American value of free exercise of religion, and ensuring that Americans are not forced to decide between their faith and their jobs.
o United States v. New York MTA – The Department is currently suing the New York City MTA over its refusal to permit Muslim and Sikh bus and subway drivers to wear religious headcoverings on the job. Title VII contains a “reasonable accommodation” provision requiring employers to reasonably accommodate employee’s religious observances and practices unless doing so would create an undue hardship on the employer.
o United States v. Berkeley – The Department filed suit against the City of Berkeley, Illinois in November 2010 over its refusal to give a Muslim teacher a two-week unpaid leave of absence to attend the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca).
o United States v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority – In a case resolved by consent decree in February 2009, the Civil Rights Division argued that Title VII required WMATA to accommodate a Pentecostal woman bus driver whose beliefs prevented her from wearing pants as required by the uniform requirements. WMATA reached a consent decree with DOJ protecting her rights, along with the rights of two Muslim women drivers whom we identified in investigating the Pentecostal woman’s claim, and others similarly situated.
o Oregon Religious Clothing Ban – In response to an Oregon law passed in July 2009 banning school teachers from wearing any “religious dress,” purportedly on separation of church and state grounds, the Civil Rights Division opened a Title VII investigation. The law could have prevented Muslims, Sikhs, and Jews from wearing religious headcoverings, Christians from wearing crosses, and other draconian results. The Division closed the investigation in April 2010 after the state repealed the law.
Education Discrimination – The Department has investigated many cases of harassment of Muslim students. The Department is working closely with the Department of Education on various anti-bullying initiatives.
o On April 12, 2011, the Civil Rights Division and the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights reached a settlement agreement with a school district to resolve allegations of harassment and disproportionate discipline of Somali- American students.
o The Department reached a settlement in 2007 with a Texas school district to allow Muslim students to pray together at lunchtime in a room in which other students were permitted to gather for various nonreligious uses.
o The Department reached a settlement in 2005 a case in Cape Henlopen, Delaware in which a teacher singled out an elementary student because she was Muslim. The teacher’s actions had led to severe harassment by other students.
o The Department intervened in 2004 on behalf of a Muslim schoolgirl in Oklahoma who was suspended for wearing a hijab, or headscarf. The matter was resolved by a consent decree that allows the student to wear the headscarf, and requires the school to consider requests for religious accommodations from other students.
Use of Land for Religious Purposes – The Department has been active in protecting the rights of mosques and other places of worship under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
o United States v. Lilburn, GA – On September 1, 2011, the Division obtained a consent decree in a suit against the City of Lilburn, Georgia regarding alleged discrimination in blocking expansion of a mosque. The consent decree requires the city to allow the mosque project to go forward, training of city officials and employees on RLUIPA, adoption and publication of a non-discrimination policy on its website and elsewhere, and record keeping and reporting requirements.
o United States v. Henrico County, VA – On September 12, 2011, the Division obtained a consent decree in this case involving alleged discrimination against a mosque in denying it rezoning in order to construct a mosque. The decree’s provisions are similar to those in Lilburn.
o Estes v. Rutherford County, TN – The Department filed a friend-of-the-court brief in October 2010 in a Tennessee state court proceeding which neighbors of a proposed mosque challenged the county’s granting of a building permit. The neighbors argued that the county was wrong to treat the mosque in the same manner that it would treat a church. The Department’s brief argued that RLUIPA required such equal treatment. The court agreed and dismissed the case in May 2011.
o In 2009 the Civil Rights Division closed its RLUIPA investigation of Wayne Township, New Jersey, in which the municipality delayed a mosque’s building permits for several years, and then tried to use its eminent domain power to seize the land to leave it undeveloped. The Civil Rights Division filed a brief in 2007 with the federal district court arguing that RLUIPA applied to the case, and the court agreed with its position.
o On September 22, 2010, the Department issued a report on the 10th Anniversary of RLUIPA, and also issued RLUIPA guidance. While a slight majority of the Divisions’ RLUIPA investigations have involved Christian churches and schools, the number of mosque cases is much greater than the prevalence of Muslims in the population, and the number has been growing in the past year. Of the 26 mosque matters opened by the Civil Rights Division since RLUIPA was enacted, 16 have been opened since May 2010.
• Access to Public Facilities – In August 2009, the Department closed an investigation of the Georgia courts that it opened after receiving complaints that three Muslim women had been barred from courthouses for wearing headscarves. The Department closed the review after the courts modified the policy to permit headcoverings for those with religious or medical reasons for doing so.
Outreach to the American Muslim Community
The Department recognizes that effective enforcement of the laws requires engagement with affected communities.
- The Attorney General has held a number of meetings with Muslim American leaders, including a meeting with interfaith leaders from a wide variety of faiths on September 7, 2010, addressing hate crimes and hate incidents against Muslims and what the Department of Justice and the faith communities could do to reduce such incidents.
- The Civil Rights Division holds a quarterly meeting that brings together top officials from federal agencies and leaders of the Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian communities to address civil rights issues.
- United States Attorneys offices are active in reaching out to Muslim communities in their districts, tailored to local situations and issues.
- The Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service (CRS) has held more than 750 town and community meetings since 9/11 addressing backlash-related issues, has trained hundreds of law enforcement departments, and has deployed conflict resolution specialists in communities around the country to alleviate tensions from backlash incidents.