Wednesday, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced the new “Place to Worship Initiative,” which 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).
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement:
“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.”
The 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, educating municipal officials and religious organizations about RLUIPA’s requirements, and providing additional training and resources for federal prosecutors. The first community outreach event under the initiative will be held on June 25, in Newark, New Jersey, led by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey.
In addition, the Place to Worship Initiative specifies “these provisions protect places of worship and other religious uses of property (including religious schools and religious social service providers) in the zoning and landmarking process from actions by local governments that: 1)Place unjustifiable burdens on religious exercise; 2)Treat religious assemblies and institutions worse than nonreligious assemblies and institutions; 3) Discriminate against religious assemblies or institutions based on religion or religious denomination; or 4) Totally or unreasonably exclude religious assemblies and institutions from a particular municipality or county.”
“The Place to Worship Initiative is a positive action from the Department of Justice and the Trump administration which will hold the government accountable to treating houses of worship as favorably as nonreligious assemblies,” said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel. “The Constitution protects the freedom to worship in private as well as in public, and that includes the facilities where people worship together.”
The Department today is also launching a new web page, including an information page and easily accessible complaint portal, a new Q&A document on RLUIPA, and other materials. In addition, the Department has created a new RLUIPA tool kit for Department lawyers working on RLUIPA cases, and is holding a webinar on June 26 for providing training and resources for U.S. Attorney’s offices.
The Justice Department also announced Wednesday that it brought a RLUIPA complaint against the Borough of Woodcliff Lake and the Woodcliff Lake Zoning Board of Adjustment in New Jersey.
The U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division has been tasked with enforcing the Place to Worship Initiative. Persons who believe their rights under RLUIPA have been violated may contact the U.S. Attorney’s Office Civil Rights Hotline at (855) 281-3339 or the Civil Rights Division Housing and Civil Enforcement Section at (800) 896-7743.
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, requires governments to treat houses of worship as favorably as nonreligious assemblies, and bars governments from discriminating among religions and from totally or unreasonably excluding houses of worship.