Eric Treene ⁠— upholding religious freedom for all

First Five by the Freedom Forum Institute

Apr 14, 2022

Download Word doc here

This month, we’re exploring the impact of the 2022 Free Expression Awards honorees, including Eric Treene, former special counsel for religious discrimination in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. These are the stories of how the First Amendment advocates we’re honoring have used their voices to uplift others. Watch the Free Expression Awards live at 8 p.m. EDT on Thursday, April 28. 

An established, fast-growing faith community in the Bible Belt South had outgrown its facility. More than 250 families and 400 students from a nearby university could no longer squeeze into its rented 2,100 square foot space.  

In 2009, they purchased a vacant lot in their Tennessee town and posted a sign proclaiming the property as the “Future site of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro.” The sign was soon defaced with a “not welcome” message. 

The mosque received unanimous approval from the county planning commission and permits to break ground on its new 12,000-square-foot facility in May 2010. Local opposition intensified. The Islamic Center received threatening phone messages. Vandals set fire to construction equipment. 

Opponents and protesters stoked fears of terrorism. Some argued that Islam is not a religion, and that the mosque didn’t deserve the same consideration and First Amendment protections that 20 Christian churches received under the same county procedures. 

In 2012, a state court ruled that “tremendous public interest” in the case subjected the mosque to a heightened legal standard for notifying the public compared to other houses of worship. Construction continued, but the county refused to issue a certificate of occupancy. 

The U.S. Department of Justice’s special counsel for religious discrimination, Eric Treene, intervened on behalf of the mosque. For the first time since the civil rights movement, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit asking a federal court to overrule a state court and order the county to disregard the ruling of a state court judge. The Islamic Center prevailed and moved into its new Murfreesboro mosque on Aug. 10, 2012. 

 “Nothing is more basic than being able to walk down the street without being attacked because of your faith or to go to your place of worship and feel safe.” – Eric Treene, former special counsel for religious discrimination, Civil Rights Division, U.S. Department of Justice

Treene, an evangelical Christian, served the Justice Department under four presidents. He took on the role of special counsel for religious discrimination in the wake of 9/11 and increased fear of religious extremism. He cites the Murfreesboro case as emblematic of the challenges facing our country today. He also says that suspicion and hatred against Muslims diminishes significantly among those who know a person who is Muslim. He has long demonstrated a commitment to protecting First Amendment religious freedom for all, and that is why he is a 2022 Freedom Forum Free Expression Awards honoree.  

The Justice Department’s religious freedom efforts during Treene’s tenure protected the religious rights of people from diverse faith backgrounds: 

  • Centro Familiar Cristiano Buenas Nuevas, a Baptist church in Yuma, Arizona, won the right to meet in a downtown area. The Justice Department provided legal support after city officials improperly excluded the church and treated it differently than non-religious establishments – a violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA)
  • Eric McGill, a Rastafarian who wears dreadlocks for religious reasons, was released from solitary confinement. Pennsylvania prison officials had wrongly placed him there for refusing to cut his hair. After the Justice Department filed a court brief, the jail modified its policy to protect the religious practice. 
  • Oklahoma sixth-grader Nashala Hearn won a case against her school for preventing her from wearing a hijab, a traditional Muslim head covering, which the school claimed was in violation of a “no hats” policy. With Justice Department intervention, the school district was required to provide training on religious accommodations to its dress code. 
  • Midrash Sephardi and Young Israel of Bal Harbor, two small Orthodox Jewish congregations in Florida, won their fight for approval to rent commercial space. A zoning board initially denied permission, and the Department of Justice submitted two legal briefs in support of the synagogues. The court ruled that under RLUIPA, zoning laws can’t be used to discriminate against churches, synagogues and other houses of worship. 

 “Eric (Treene) has been dedicated to ensuring that the law worked to protect free exercise of religion for people of all faiths.” — Freedom Forum fellow Charles Haynes  

Treene’s religious freedom efforts during 19 years at the Justice Department received criticism. Some saw the emphasis on religious freedom cases as draining resources from more traditional civil rights and hate crime cases. Some say his work on behalf of minority faiths – particularly Muslims – put him in league with “Muslim Brotherhood Operatives.” 

“At the U.S. Department of Justice under both Republican and Democratic administrations, Eric Treene was the most consistent, determined and fair-minded advocate for religious freedom in the federal government,” says Charles Haynes, founder of the Freedom Forum’s religious freedom initiatives. “Throughout his distinguished career, Eric has been dedicated to ensuring that the law worked to protect free exercise of religion for people of all faiths. Principled, caring, self-effacing, Eric Treene is a true hero of religious freedom.” 

The 2022 Free Expression Awards are on April 28 at The Anthem in Washington, D.C., and streamed live online.