The federal government Wednesday announced a special Place to Worship initiative to ensure religious organizations have a “place to gather for worship.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that while such rights are protected in the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, they are not adequately enforced.
“The goal of the Initiative is to increase enforcement and public awareness of the land use provisions of RLUIPA,” he said in a statement.
“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: Place unjustifiable burdens on religious exercise; treat religious assemblies and institutions worse than nonreligious assemblies and institutions; discriminate against religious assemblies or institutions based on religion or religious denomination; or totally or unreasonably exclude religious assemblies and institutions from a particular municipality or county,” the attorney general said.
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins praised the Justice Department and President Trump “for erecting another bulwark of protection around America’s First Freedom – religious freedom.”
“This is an administration that is fully committed to defending the freedom of all Americans to believe and live according to those beliefs,” he said.
“Over the years, local governments have discriminated against houses of worship through various zoning restrictions, limits on operational hours and even congregation size limits,” he said.
Perkins noted that in 2000, Congress approved RLUIPA “by unanimous consent in an effort to protect houses of worship from such unjustified governmental abuse.”
“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.”
Sessions said 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,” he 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.”
Mat Staver, chairman of Liberty Counsel, said 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.”
“The Constitution protects the freedom to worship in private as well as in public, and that includes the facilities where people worship together,” he said.
The Alliance Defending Freedom noted that for many years it is had to fight in the courts for the proper application of the law.
“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,” said 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.”