In a Win for First Amendment Rights, Federal Court Rules That DHS Illegally Targeted Pastor Kaji Douša for Ministering to Migrants and Refugees

San Diego, CA — In a major victory for religious freedom and free speech, a federal judge in California ruled that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) violated the First Amendment rights of Pastor Kaji Douša, the Senior Pastor of Park Avenue Christian Church in New York City, by retaliating against her for ministering to migrants and refugees. 

Judge Todd W. Robinson of United States District Court for the Southern District of California wrote in his March 21 decision: “CBP unlawfully retaliated against [Pastor Douša] for her protected First Amendment activity, violated her Free Exercise right to minister to migrants in Mexico, and violated the [Religious Freedom and Restoration Act] when [CBP official] Oliveri emailed Mexican authorities” falsely claiming Pastor Douša lacked adequate documentation to be in Mexico and should be denied entry and sent back to the United States. “[N]o credible claim of legitimacy can be made for Oliveri’s December 10, 2018 email to the Mexican government. Not only does it appear that the decision to send such an email was unprecedented, but even Oliveri acknowledged that the email was ‘[l]iterally, creative writing…[w]ithout any basis.’…[T]he absence of any proper basis for writing and sending the email is incontrovertible evidence of Oliveri’s retaliatory motive.”

Judge Robinson ordered CBP and DHS to promptly inform the Mexican government that their requests for Pastor Douša to be denied entry and returned to the United States are “fully and immediately rescinded and revoked.”

“I am humbled and full of gratitude for Judge Robinson’s thoughtful ruling in our favor. To be the prevailing party in a lawsuit against the most powerful government in the world, quite honestly, feels like a miracle,” said Pastor Douša. “With this decision, I see the hand of God bending the arc toward justice. Judge Robinson vindicated what I knew to be true all along: my own government didn’t like who God called me to serve, so they did everything they could think of to make that nearly impossible for me. This righteous ruling gives me the chance to get back to my ministry unimpeded by government intervention.”

“Under our laws, the government cannot dictate with whom a pastor may pray or to whom she may preach and minister,” said William Perdue, a partner at Arnold & Porter. “The court’s decision delivers much-needed accountability for CBP officials who, during the last administration, illegally targeted a Christian pastor because she provided pastoral care to migrants.”

“No government official should retaliate against someone based on their religious practices or their speech. But that is exactly what DHS officials did to Pastor Douša and others,” said Christine Kwon, Counsel for Protect Democracy. “DHS’s targeting of a Christian pastor providing religious ministry comes straight out of the authoritarian playbook. It has no place in a nation founded on the rule of law, and we are glad the court found that DHS’s behavior was unlawful. Protecting Pastor Douša’s constitutional freedoms is essential to maintaining the core principles of our democracy.”

Plaintiff Pastor Douša has used her ministry to advocate for migrants and refugees, both within the United States and across the border in Mexico. Pastor Douša’s ministry has included praying for migrants and the laying on of hands, offering the sacred rite of Christian marriage, and organizing holy vigils—some of which have been critical of U.S. immigration law and policy. All of these activities are protected by the Constitution and federal law, even if they criticize the government or serve communities the government disfavors. 

Nevertheless, DHS retaliated against Pastor Douša—going so far as lying to Mexican officials in a request that they detain her. These adverse actions, in Pastor Douša’s words, made it “escalatingly, increasingly harder” to offer her ministry, causing her to curtail her activities in the United States and to cease her ministry in Mexico altogether.

Misusing law enforcement to target those who offer comfort to marginalized communities is fundamentally at odds with a democratic society. Pastor Douša’s experiences make clear that our own government is capable of such abuses.

Pastor Douša was represented by Protect Democracy and the law firm, Arnold & Porter.

The ruling can be found here. For more information about the case, visit the case page.

Related Content