New DOJ initiative seeks to protect churches from illegal land use, zoning discrimination

WASHINGTON, D.C – The U.S. Department of Justice announced on June 12 its 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).”

“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,” says ADF Senior Counsel Erik Stanley, director of the ADF Center for Christian Ministries. “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.”

According to the DOJ, the new initiative will work with United States Attorney’s Offices around the country to strengthen awareness of RLUIPA’s land use provisions through community outreach events, education of municipal officials, and training for federal prosecutors. A new web page features RLUIPA information and an easily accessible complaint portal.

“The Constitution doesn’t just protect freedom to worship in private—it protects the public exercise of religious belief, including where people worship together,” says U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “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.”

Because of the increasing number of legal challenges that churches face, ADF last year began the Church Alliance, an affordable membership program that prepares, advises, and defends churches as the legal culture tests the limits of religious freedom.

For many years, Alliance Defending Freedom has litigated numerous lawsuits to defend the freedoms that churches and other religious organizations have under RLUIPA, including a lawsuit filed last week against the city of Monroe, North Carolina, a lawsuit in Laurel, Maryland, and a more-than-seven-year legal battle with the city of Upper Arlington, Ohio.

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