Protecting the Religious Freedom of All:

Federal Laws Against Religious Discrimination:
"In this Land of equal liberty it is our boast, that a man's religious tenets will not forfeit the protection of the Laws, nor deprive him of the right of attaining and holding the highest Offices that are known in the United States." Stated By -George Washington

Religious liberty was central to the Founders' vision for America, and is the "first freedom" listed in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. A critical component of religious liberty is the right of people of all faiths to participate fully in the benefits and privileges of society without facing discrimination based on their religion.

The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice enforces federal statutes that prohibit discrimination based on religion in education, employment, housing, public accommodations, and access to public facilities.

In addition, the Civil Rights Division prosecutes bias crimes committed against individuals because of their religion and acts of vandalism and arson against houses of worship. The Civil Rights Division also is authorized to bring suit to enforce the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), which protects individuals and houses of worship from discriminatory and unduly burdensome zoning regulations, and protects the religious exercise of prisoners and other institutionalized persons.

This brochure provides an introduction to the laws against religious discrimination enforced by the Department of Justice, and information on how to report claims to the various sections of the Civil Rights Division and where to learn more about your rights.

Religious Exercise of Institutionalized Persons:
A prison makes no provision for kosher meals, despite the repeated requests of three Jewish prisoners who have identified a low-cost provider of such meals. Catholic prisoners seek space in a prison chapel on Sunday and permission for a volunteer priest to come in to say Mass, but are told that they should attend the nondenominational Christian service run by the prison's Protestant chaplain.

A Native American prisoner has his medicine bag confiscated during intake to a prison, although other prisoners are permitted to keep rosary beads, crosses, and other physically equivalent small religious items.

RLUIPA, discussed with regard to zoning and landmarking law above, also contains a provision protecting the religious exercise of inmates and other persons confined to certain institutions. RLUIPA requires that actions by officials which impose a substantial burden on the institutionalized person's religious exercise must be justified by a compelling government interest and must be the least restrictive means available to achieve that interest.

The Division's Special Litigation Section
(202) 514-6255
is authorized to bring
RLUIPA cases involving
Institutionalized Persons.

The mailing address is:
Special Litigation Section,
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20530

Further information is available at; www.usdoj.gov/crt/split

Protecting the Religious Freedom of All:
Federal Laws Against Religious Discrimination

Religious Intolerance

Indigenous Peoples' fundamental human right to freedom of religion, culture and spiritual practice continues to be under attack. To protect their traditional ceremonial ways of life, Indigenous Peoples are forced to resist and struggle on a daily basis against forced removals, desecration of sacred lands, institutionalized racism and rampant commercialization of sacred cultural knowledge, art forms, sacred places and ceremonial practices without their permission or agreement.

In December, 2000 at the United Nations Americas Preparatory Conference for the World Conference Against Racism in Santiago, Chile, Mr. Lenny Foster, International Indian Treaty Council Board member, National Coordinator of the National Native American Prisoners Rights Advocacy Coalition, and director and spiritual advisor and Director of the Navajo Nation Corrections Project, addressed another critical example of denial of religious freedom for Indigenous peoples in the United States.

Mr. Foster visits and represents over 1,500 Native American clients incarcerated in 96 state and federal prisons, who are victims of extreme racial and religious discrimination.

For years Native American Peoples have been denied the right to practice traditional Native religious and spiritual beliefs in the United States prison systems.

Until 1978, countless ceremonial practices were banned and outlawed by the United States government, and religious structures and articles were destroyed in an effort to assimilate the Native Peoples into the dominant society.

Today, enforcement and compliance with existing laws, policies and statutes are not uniform.

Lawsuits filed to enforce existing laws have resulted in adverse decisions, and freedom of religion for Native American prisoners has depended upon the whim of individual prison officials.

Mr. Foster stated in his intervention that long hair worn in a traditional fashion is an essential aspect of Native American cultural and spiritual beliefs, but that California state prison officials recently implemented a forcible haircutting policy for Native Americans prisoners, harming them spiritually and psychologically.

Federal and state prison systems regularly deny equal access and use of sacred herbs and prayer items, entry for spiritual leaders, and traditional ceremonies, even for prisoners condemned to Death. There are currently forty-four Native American inmates on Death Row condemned to execution.

Prison officials in California and Missouri have denied requests by condemned prisoners for use of the traditional sweat lodge ceremony as a Last Rite before their executions.

Mr. Foster stated at the Americas Prepcom "Our ancestors were displaced physically and spiritually by the United States government. During the displacement, many of the traditional ways of spiritual and religious practices were repressed. The dominant society sought to destroy our culture.

However a spiritual and cultural revival has developed in the past thirty years in which the Native Americans have sought to regain the roots of our culture….

The outright denial of religious practices for Indigenous Prisoners is another example of the lack of implementation of internationally recognized rights upholding freedom of religion for Indigenous Peoples in the US."

In light of such cases, which represent only a small percentage of total, the IITC calls upon the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to stand with Indigenous Peoples in our ongoing call for our internationally enshrined rights to freedom from racism and discrimination based on religion or belief be fully respected.

Indigenous Peoples must finally be respected as full members of the human family, and as Peoples with the fundamental right to self-determination over their cultural development.

Thank you, for all our relations.

Written intervention submitted by
The International Indian Treaty Council
Commission on Human Rights


The Justice Department as a branch of the United States government, has a legally-binding trust responsibility to protect traditional Native religions, spiritual and cultural practices.

The international community recognizes that persons under detention are not exempt from human rights protections and accords this vulnerable population special protections.

In January 2003 testimony was presented at US Civil Rights Commission Hearings in Albuquerque New Mexico addressing violations of the spiritual, cultural and religious rights of Native Prisoners in the US federal and state prison systems.

Leonard Foster, Coordinator of the National Native American Prisoners Rights Advocacy Coalition, Director of the Navajo Nation Corrections Project and Board Member of the IITC testified that prisons in Arizona, California, Texas, South Dakota, Montana, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, Minnesota and New Mexico continued to violate religious freedom provisions mandated for American Indian prisoners by both US and international law.

In November 2002, Mr. Foster presented similar violations to the US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division in Washington DC, including:

a) denials of access to traditional ceremonies

b) lack of equal access to religious and spiritual leaders;

c) lack of equal access to religious items;

d) denial of the right to wear long hair or traditional hair style according to the religious customs of respective Indian Nations;

e) denials of access to ceremonial foods;

f) transfer to state facilities where American Indian religious practices are prohibited and;

g) denial of access to traditional counseling and ceremonies, including requested last rites ceremonies for American Indian inmates on Death Row.

Both Federal Agencies committed to investigate and address these problems, but to the knowledge of those involved, nothing has been done to date.

Since that time, the IITC and the National Native American Prisoners Rights Advocacy Coalition have received reports of new and continuing violations, including State of California Department of Corrections “grooming regulations” mandating forced hair-cutting despite requests for religious exemptions for Native prisoners, and continued denial of sweat lodge ceremonies by the Texas Department of Corrections.

Written intervention submitted by
The International Indian Treaty Council
United Nations Commission on Human Rights

Resolution on Prisoners' Rights (PDF)
July 8-11, 2004

“Spirituality is the foundation of
American Indian culture–
the root of a traditional way of life.
If American Indian peoples are denied
the right to exercise their spirituality,
we’re talking about a denial
that borders on cultural genocide.”
—Lenny Foster, 1997
Coordinator of
National Native American Prisoners' Rights Coalition;
Director of
Navajo Nations Corrections Project;
Advocate for
Prisoners' Religious Freedoms.

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