The US Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] on Wednesday announced [press release] the “Place to Worship Initiative” to assist in religious organizations’ ability to build, rent and maintain places of worship.
The initiative seeks to educate communities on the provisions of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) [text] by providing community outreach, education of civic and religious leaders on how to meet requirements and training for prosecutors. The DOJ has also created a dedicated page [official website] on its site for ease of access to RLUIPA information. The general rule of the RLUIPA is:
No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution, unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person, assembly, or institution—
(A) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and
(B) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions [official profile] commented on the announcement:
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.
The same day as the announcement, the DOJ filed [press release] a lawsuit [complaint, PDF] against a New Jersey municipality for denying zoning approval to a build place of worship for members of the Orthodox Jewish faith. The complaint alleges that the Borough of Woodcliff Lake violated the RLUIPA through its denial of a variance for construction by “placing a substantial burden” on the exercise of religion of the Orthodox Jewish congregation, Valley Chabad, having also denied three previous attempts by the religious organization to build a new place of worship.