U.S. Department of Justice
Photo Credit: CoolCeasar via Wikimedia Commons (CC-By-SA 3.0)

(Washington, DC) The U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday launched the Place to Worship Initiative that will focus on protecting the ability of houses of worship and other religious institutions to build, expand, buy, or rent facilities as provided by the land use provisions of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) of 2000.

“The Constitution doesn’t just protect freedom to worship in private—it protects the public exercise of religious belief, including where people worship together,” Attorney General Sessions said. “Under the laws of this country, government cannot discriminate against people based on their religion–not in law enforcement, not in grant-making, not in hiring, and not in local zoning laws. President Trump is an unwavering defender of the right of free exercise, and under his leadership, the Department of Justice is standing up for the rights of all Americans. By raising awareness about our legal rights, the Place to Worship Initiative will help us bring more civil rights cases, win more cases, and prevent discrimination from happening in the first place.”

RLUIPA is a federal law that protects religious institutions from unduly burdensome or discriminatory land use regulations. Specifically, RLUIPA bars land use regulations that impose a substantial burden on religious exercise without a compelling justification. The law also requires governments to treat houses of worship as favorably as nonreligious assemblies.

It also bars governments from discriminating among religions and from totally or unreasonably excluding houses of worship.

“No city should use its zoning laws to engage in religious discrimination. Unfortunately, in the 18 years since Congress passed RLUIPA, local governments have done just that, blatantly disregarding the law,” Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel Erik Stanley, director of the ADF Center for Christian Ministries, said responding to the announcement. “For that reason, we commend the Department of Justice and the Trump administration for placing a much-needed focus on the freedoms churches and other religious groups have under this federal law.”

ADF says they have litigated a number of lawsuits against municipalities who discriminate against religious organizations including a lawsuit filed last week against the city of Monroe, North Carolina who recently enacted a zoning code that effectively barred At the Cross Fellowship Baptist Church from holding worship services in its newly rented and renovated premises.

The Justice Department will work with the United States Attorney’s Offices to strengthen awareness of the land use provisions of RLUIPA by hosting community outreach events across the country. They plan to educate municipal officials and religious organizations about the law’s requirements. DOJ will also provide additional training and resources for federal prosecutors. They also launched a new website that includes additional information, resources, and a Q&A section.

The Justice Department also announced that it has filed a lawsuit against the Borough of Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, alleging that the borough and its zoning board violated RLUIPA when it denied zoning approval to allow the Valley Chabad, an Orthodox Jewish congregation located in Woodcliff Lake, to build a new place of worship on its land in the borough.

“The right to use land for religious exercise, free from unduly burdensome or discriminatory restrictions, is a fundamental constitutional right,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore. “The Department of Justice remains vigilant in its enforcement of federal civil rights laws protecting religious groups’ ability to establish places of worship without improper interference.”

“Federal law protects all religious communities from discrimination and unlawful barriers when they seek to build a place of worship,” said New Jersey U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito. “According to the complaint, the Borough of Woodcliff Lake imposed a substantial burden on Valley Chabad’s religious freedom by repeatedly meddling in its attempts to purchase property in the area and citing subjective and misleading reasons to justify denying its zoning application.”

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