‘The cultural climate has become less hospitable to people of faith and to religious belief…’
(Kaylee McGhee, Liberty Headlines) Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new Justice Department initiative aimed at preventing zoning discrimination against religious groups.
The “Place to Worship Initiative” will allow the DOJ’s civil rights division to file more cases against municipalities that discriminate against religious institutions, like churches, Sessions said on Tuesday.
Mat Staver, chairman of Christian legal group Liberty Counsel, called the effort “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.”
Sessions said the DOJ undertaking will protect “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).”
“In recent years, the cultural climate has become less hospitable to people of faith and to religious belief. Many Americans have felt that their freedom to practice their faith has been under attack,” Sessions said during an event in New Jersey. “This feeling is understandable. Religious Americans have heard themselves called deplorables. They’ve heard themselves called bitter clingers.”
As part of the new initiative, Sessions said the DOJ is suing a town in New Jersey for denying zoning approval to an Orthodox Jewish synagogue.
He said this new policy will also allow the DOJ to crack down on hate crimes, specifically referencing anti-Semitic rhetoric.
“Make no mistake: hate crimes are violent crimes,” he said. “And reducing violent crime is our top priority.”
This move is one of many the Trump administration has taken to bolster religious freedom in the United States.
“The Constitution doesn’t just protect freedom to worship in private — it protects the public exercise of religious belief, including where people worship together,” 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.”
Other pro-religious freedom groups also praised the move.
“In 2000, Congress approved RLUIPA by unanimous consent in an effort to protect houses of worship from such unjustified governmental abuse,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.
“Nearly 18 years later, we continue to see examples of local governments – whether through ignorance or hostility – are skirting the law. Today the DOJ is putting teeth in the enforcement of a law designed by Congress to prevent government from trampling the free exercise of religion.”
Liberty Headlines editor Paul Chesser contributed.