'Much-needed' initiative aims to protect churches from zoning discrimination

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Protecting places of worship from zoning discrimination is the focus of a new initiative from the Department of Justice, announced earlier this week. 

The ‘Place to Worship’ initiative aims to increase awareness of religious institutions’ right to build, expand, buy or rent facilities.

These land-use provisions are already provided for in the 2000 Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which protects religious institutions from discriminatory or unduly burdensome zoning practices. However, these rights have come under threat recently in several legal cases.

In a statement announcing the initiative, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the provisions protect not only the private act of worship, but the public exercise of religion provided for in the Constitution.

"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,” Sessions said. 

“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."

Goals of the new initiative include raising awareness of these rights through community outreach events, educating municipal officials and religious organizations about RLUIPA’s requirements, and providing additional training and resources for federal prosecutors regarding these cases.

The DOJ also launched a new website containing additional information about RLUIPA for religious institutions and lawyers, as well as a complaint portal and Q&A section.

Non-profit legal group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which has represented several religious clients in RLUIPA lawsuits, applauded the initiative for providing a “much-needed” focus on religious freedom.

“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,” ADF Senior Counsel Erik Stanley, director of the ADF Center for Christian Ministries, said in a statement.

“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,” he added.

Alongside the DOJ’s announcement on Tuesday, the Department added that it was filing a  lawsuit against the Borough of Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, for the denial of zoning approval for an Orthodox Jewish synagogue in three separate instances.

In their statement, ADF also noted three specific RLUIPA cases in which they have recently been involved, including a lawsuit they filed earlier this month against the city of Monroe, North Carolina, for a zoning code that effectively bans At the Cross Fellowship Baptist Church from holding worship services in its rented facilities.

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