Earlier this week, the Department of Justice announced its “Place to Worship Initiative” to help protect houses of worship and religious institutions against discrimination in the local land use process. Attorney General Jefferson Sessions announced the new initiative and stated that President Trump “is an unwavering defender of the right of free exercise [of religion], and under his leadership, the Department of Justice is standing up for the rights of all Americans.” The full statement reads:
The Constitution doesn’t just protect freedom to worship in private – it protects the public exercise of religious belief, including where people worship together. 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 press release states that the DOJ will seek to strengthen awareness of RLUIPA’s land use provisions by: hosting community outreach events, educating municipal officials and religious organizations about RLUIPA’s requirements, and providing training and resources for federal prosecutors. The DOJ’s first community outreach event is planned for June 25 in Newark, New Jersey.
The same day it launched the Place to Worship Initiative, the DOJ filed a federal RLUIPA lawsuit against Borough of Woodcliff, New Jersey over the Borough’s denial of zoning approval for an Orthodox Jewish house of worship. The DOJ issued a press release describing the suit:
The complaint, filed in the District of New Jersey, alleges that Woodcliff Lake’s denial of a variance imposed a substantial burden on the Valley Chabad’s religious exercise. The complaint alleges that between 2005 and 2013, the Valley Chabad sought to purchase three different sites in the borough to construct a place of worship, and that the borough took steps to thwart each attempt. The complaint also alleges that after nine years of searching for a suitable location, in 2014 the Valley Chabad sought to construct a larger place of worship at its current location in the borough. After two years, 18 hearings, and substantial revisions by Chabad to address size and transportation concerns, the zoning board denied the application. The zoning board cited aesthetic concerns, the adverse impact on the ‘residential character of the neighborhood,’ and safety issues that were undermined by the testimony of the zoning board’s own experts.
The DOJ’s complaint in United States of America v. Borough of Woodcliff Lake and Woodcliff Lake Zoning Board of Adjustment (Dist. N.J. 2018) is available here.