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The United States Department of Justice announced on Thursday that is has reason to celebrate “strong support” for religious freedom.

The Department celebrated due to the one-year anniversary of its Place to Worship Initiative, which focuses on protecting the rights of religious individuals and communities to build, expand, buy, or rent houses of worship and other religious facilities as guaranteed by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

“The Department of Justice has prioritized protecting religious freedom, and the successes we have achieved under the Place to Worship Initiative in just one year demonstrate the strength of that commitment,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband said in a press release. “The Civil Rights Division will continue to enforce vigorously the laws that defend the fundamental freedom of religion, and we are pleased that this initiative has allowed the Department to continue this important work on behalf of many different and diverse religious groups.”

Since launching the initiative last June, the Civil Rights Division has doubled the number of RLUIPA investigations to 15, compared to the average of seven investigations per year from 2010 – 2016.  A majority of investigations result in a resolution, or settlement, without a lawsuit.  Since the initiative began, the Justice Department has resolved 10 RLUIPA investigations.

From the press release:

Moreover, since the start of the initiative, the Department filed a lawsuit against the Borough of Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, alleging that the borough violated RLUIPA when its zoning board denied zoning approval to allow the Valley Chabad, an Orthodox Jewish congregation, to build a new place of worship on its land. The Department also filed suit against and reached an agreement with the City of Farmersville, Texas, to resolve allegations that the city violated RLUIPA when it denied an application by the Islamic Association of Collin County to build a cemetery.

Since the initiative began, the Department has also actively participated in RLUIPA lawsuits filed by private parties around the country.  The Department has filed four Statements of Interest supporting RLUIPA plaintiffs in federal district courts, including: Hope Lutheran Church v. City of St. IgnaceChristian Fellowship Centers of New York, Inc. v. Village of CantonRamapough Mountain Indians, Inc. v. Township of Mahwah, and Jagannath Organization for Global Awareness v. Howard County. These cases have involved such diverse issues as the ability of churches in New York and Michigan to locate in business districts, the right of Ramapough Mountain Indians to use land for religious assembly in New Jersey, and the right of a Hindu congregation to build a temple in Maryland.  The Department also filed an amicus brief and presented oral argument in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit supporting an Evangelical church’s RLUIPA claim against Baltimore County, Maryland.  The Fourth Circuit ultimately agreed with the Department’s position that the small congregation, many of whose members are African immigrants, could proceed with its claim that the county improperly denied approval to build a small church on a 1.2-acre lot.

Finally, as part of the Place to Worship Initiative, the Department has launched a new website and complaint portal, provided informational materials for religious leaders and municipal officials, and held 15 community outreach and training events to raise awareness about RLUIPA across the country.

The Department of Justice announced the creation of the Religious Liberty Task Force in July 2018.  The Task Force helps the Department fully implement the religious liberty guidance by ensuring that all Justice Department components are upholding that guidance in the cases they bring and defend, the arguments they make in court, the policies and regulations they adopt, and how we conduct our operations.

RLUIPA is a federal law that protects religious institutions from unduly burdensome or discriminatory land use regulations.

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