Interference with Religious Worship

Houses of worship have historically been frequent targets of violent hate crimes, arson, and vandalism. In recent years, we have also seen organized armed protests outside of mosques, neo-Nazis protesting across from a synagogue with semi-automatic weapons in Charlottesville, Virginia, and white supremacists standing outside of churches serving congregations of color. This resource was developed to answer frequently asked questions on interference with religious worship. If you have additional questions, feel free to contact the Stop Hate Project at 844-9-NO-HATE or NoHate@lawyerscommittee.org.

Disclaimer: This guide is designed for informational purposes only. It is not legal advice and is not intended to create an attorney-client relationship. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law does not warrant any information contained in this guide, nor does the Lawyers’ Committee suggest that the information in this guide should be used as a basis to pursue legal advice or decision-making. Note, this guide is not exhaustive. Situations or inquiries may arise that are not answered below. In those circumstances, please call 844-9-NO-HATE

Are there statues that can be used to prohibit interference with religious worship?

There are both federal and state statues that prohibit interference with religious worship. For example, The Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances & Places of Religious Worship Act (FACE) is a federal civil rights provision that prohibits interference with religious worship. It allows someone to bring a civil case against a person or group of people who by force, threat of force, or physical obstruction attempt to or intentionally injure, intimidate, or interfere with the free exercise of religion at a place of worship. (1) Over 20 states have statutes that prohibit interference with religious worship. (2) State statutes often employ similar language to prohibit offenders from intentionally intimidating a person from lawfully exercising his or her right to religious freedom or interfering with, disturbing, or interrupting a person from engaging in or attempting to engage the free exercise of religion at a place of worship. (3) Click here to see the language of different state statutes prohibiting interference with religious worship.

(1) Other provisions of the FACE Act also protect a person seeking to obtain reproductive health services, and permits the government to bring a criminal case for a violation of the FACE Act in the context of places of worship or reproductive health services clinics.

(2) These states/districts include: California (Cal. Penal Code § 302), District of Columbia (D.C. Code Ann. § 22-1321), Florida (Fla. Stat. Ann. § 871.01), Idaho (Idaho Code Ann. § 18-7902), Illinois (730 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. 5/5-5-3.2), Maryland (Md. Code Ann., Crim. Law § 10-303), Massachusetts (Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 272, § 38), Michigan (Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. § 752.525), Minnesota (Minn. Stat. Ann. § 609.28), Mississippi (Miss. Code. Ann. § 97-35-17), Missouri (Mo. Ann. Stat. § 574.035), Nevada (Nev. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 201.270), New Mexico (N.M. Stat. Ann. § 30-13-1), New York (N.Y. Penal Law § 240.70), North Carolina (N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 14-199), Oklahoma (Okla. Stat. Ann. tit. 21, § 915), Rhode Island (11 R.I. Gen. Laws Ann. § 11-11-1), South Carolina (S.C. Code Ann. § 16-17-520), South Dakota (S.C. Code Ann. § 16-17-520), Virginia (Va. Code Ann. § 18.2-415), West Virginia (W. Va. Code Ann. § 61-6-13). There is scant precedent discussing state religious worship statutes.

(3) 3 See Idaho Code Ann. § 18-7902 (2017); N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 14-199 (2017); S.C. Code Ann. § 16-17-520 (2017); Minn. Stat. § 609.28 (2017); Mo. Ann. Stat. § 574.035 (2017).

What does the FACE ACT prohibit?

The FACE Act serves to protect places of worship from threats of force and physical obstruction. When protests or other actions interfere with the free exercise of religion, they may run afoul of the FACE Act. Prohibited actions include:

– Use or threat of physical force;
– Physical obstructions that injure (i.e., stopping someone from entering or exiting an establishment or public road);
– Intimidation or specific actions leading to intimidation, or
– Interference with religious practice as protected by the First Amendment. (4)

Under the First Amendment, individuals have the right to peaceful assembly so long as it does not interfere with other freedoms protected by the U.S. Constitution, such as the free exercise of religion.

(4) 18 USC § 248

What is not prohibited by the FACE Act?

The FACE Act does not prohibit actions relating to the First Amendment right of freedom of speech, including but not limited to, peaceful protest, singing, praying, the display of signs, or the distribution of materials outside of a place of worship. Individuals are generally able to engage in such activities as long as they do not physically harm, threaten, trespass, intimidate, obstruct the peace, or physically block entrances.

What constitutes interference with religious practice?

Acts of harassment, oppression, and intimidation that obstruct the exercise of religious worship are considered to be an interference with religious practice. Such actions have included:
Vandalism (i.e., intentionally defacing, damaging, or destroying religious property);
– Force or threat of force;
– Physical obstruction (i.e., physically blocking entrances into a place of worship);
– Intentional injuries;
– Intimidation, and/or
– Profanity or indecent speech that is used to disturb worship services.

What is considered a place of worship?

Places of worship are physical structures primarily used for worship and where religious
services are held. (5)

(5) Ibd.

How are religious services or activities defined legally?

Religious activity is defined as “regularly scheduled weekly gatherings, or alternate services, of a religious faith group.” Religious activities include events occurring at or in
the immediate vicinity of a place of religious worship. (6)

Such activities include, but are not limited to:

– Religious Text Study groups
– Catechism
– Choir rehearsal
– Epiphanies
– Baptisms
– Religious retreats

(6) See, e.g., 18 U.S.C. § 247

Can places of worship deny entry to those seeking to enter?

Yes, but it depends. As private institutions, places of worship may deny entry during
worship or non-worship hours to someone who is interfering with worship, who poses a
threat or potential threat to other parishioners, or who interrupts the religious service. Peaceful protests generally can occur outside of a place of worship. However, protesters do not have a right to enter the private property of a place of worship to protest. Conversely, a place of worship may not deny entry to someone if that person is not behaving in a way that justifies denial of entry. (7)

A place of worship may not deny entry to someone on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, or disability. If protesters are outside of a place of worship and their actions violate the FACE Act (for example, they are preventing people from entering the house of worship), the house of
worship may bring a FACE claim and get injunctive relief from a court establishing a buffer zone around its entrance. (8)

(7) Note: Under federal and state laws, places of worship cannot deny entrance to someone on the basis of a protected category. This generally includes race, color, national origin, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, or disability. This would not prevent a place of worship from denying entrance to someone who is interfering with worship or who poses a threat to the people inside the house of worship.
(8) See 18 U.S.C. §248

Does the FACE Act apply to non-religious activities that are held at a house of worship?

The FACE Act protects someone exercising or trying to exercise their religion at a place of worship, so if the activity prevented someone from entering the house of worship in order to exercise their religion, even if it was not a time when services were occurring, the FACE Act would apply.

The FACE Act would not apply to someone who was denied the ability to engage in a nonreligious activity. However, other legal protections mean that a house of worship generally can decide who comes onto their property provided it is not denying service on the basis of a protected category.

Do the provisions outlined by the FACE ACT apply to religious schools?

Federal protections are given to “religious activity,” therefore school-related religious services are protected as well. Federal law and relevant jurisprudence clearly establish that the Constitutional right to worship extends to religious activities that might otherwise appear secular on their face, so long as the connection back to the exercise of religious freedom is genuine.

Can I prohibit a firearm inside my religious institution?

Yes. Firearms can be prohibited inside and on the property of a place of worship, even in a state with open-carry or conceal-and-carry legislation. While we have not identified a case in which a religious interference statute was directly challenged (successfully or unsuccessfully) on Second Amendment grounds, a small number of state and federal cases indicate the high priority courts place on the First Amendment, even in the face of Second Amendment challenges. These cases suggest that courts are likely to prioritize the right to practice religion freely and without intimidation over a Second Amendment right to carry a gun. (9)

(9)  See GeorgiaCarry.Org, Inc. v. Georgia, 687 F.3d 1244, 1249 (11th Cir. 2012); Edina Cmty. Lutheran Church v. State, 745 N.W.2d 194, 198 (Minn. Ct. App. 2008); Unity Church of St. Paul v. State, 694 N.W.2d 585, 590 (Minn. Ct. App. 2005); Norman v. State, 159 So. 3d 205, 211 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2015), approved, 215 So. 3d 18 (Fla. 2017).

Can I deny entrance of an individual or group of individuals who are disruptive or threatening during non-worship hours?

Yes. A religious institution can exclude an individual or group of individuals who are disruptive or threatening from entering its property during worship and non-worship hours.

If someone enters into my house of worship, and I feel a potential threat, can I ask them to leave?

Yes. You have the right to prohibit disruptive conduct on your property. Even if your congregation welcomes all, if a threat or potential threat is present you have the right to ask the individual(s) to exit the premises. If they refuse to exit, you should contact local law enforcement.

Would it affect my nonprofit status if I ask someone to leave?

No, if you ask someone to leave because they are disrupting your religious services, it would not affect your nonprofit status.

What should I do if someone is outside the house of worship intimidating parishioners?

If you or others fear for your safety or are in immediate danger, you should contact local law enforcement to inform them of the potential threat.

The following precautions should be taken:

– Usher in parishioners and lock the doors to block out potentially violent protesters until the police arrive.
– Document any evidence including photographs, video, or voice recordings, if possible.

If you recognize any person or detail from a previous event, be sure to communicate that to law enforcement. Establishing a pattern is helpful in establishing the intent behind the conduct.

For legal sand social resources call 1-844-9-NO-Hate (1-844-966-4283).

If someone is intimidating parishioners outside a house of worship, can I refuse entrance?

Yes. If someone is interfering with the religious service and/or poses a potential threat, you can refuse entrance.

What should I say to law enforcement if I call to report protesting, marching, or other forms of intimidation towards parishioners outside of my house of worship?

  • Report and document physical trespass on the property (i.e., people actually stepping foot on your property as opposed to sidewalks or other public property), any physical actions or aggression, threats of any physical action or aggression against you or your parishioners.
  • Explain how the actions of the protestors outside a house of worship are threatening, intimidating, or preventing someone from gaining access to a house of worship.
  • Document the effect that the conduct of the people you are concerned about has on people trying to worship, and make sure to explain this when reporting activity to law enforcement.

PRACTICES TO HELP KEEP HOUSES OF WORSHIP SAFE AND PREVENT INTERFERENCE WITH RELIGIOUS WORSHIP

  • Ask individuals to sign-in upon entering the place of worship.
  • Distribute information cards to visitors in order to collect identification and contact information.
  • Ask visitors to introduce themselves.
  • Maintain an updated roster of individuals who attend religious services and activities that includes contact information.
  • Do not hesitate to call local law enforcement if there is a potential threat of harm or violence.
  • Remember when you call to report the activity that is raising concerns and to document how that conduct is threatening, intimidating, or preventing someone from exercising their religious freedom.
  • Maintain a record of any instances in which you or your members have felt the need to call the police, including the conduct that created the threatening situation and the police response.