Written by Don Byrd

Attorney General Jeff Sessions today announced the “Place to Worship Initiative,” which is designed to call attention to a 2000 federal law that protects religious entities against burdensome land use regulations. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), bars local governments from imposing a substantial burden on religious exercise through the enforcement of zoning regulations unless such a burden is necessary to further a compelling state interest.

It has been cited all across the country to lift needless hurdles faced by congregations seeking to grow, build on, move, or otherwise develop land. Most prominently, RLUIPA has been in headlines for requiring the approval of construction permits for mosques in the face of noisy public opposition and recalcitrant zoning boards. But RLUIPA offers the same protections for houses of worship of all faiths.

According to a press release from the Justice Department, the “Place to Worship Initiative” seeks to shine a light on RLUIPA’s protections, for the public, local government officials, and federal prosecutors alike. Here is an excerpt outlining the goals of this new program:

The Department will work with the United States Attorney’s Offices to strengthen awareness of the land use provisions of RLUIPA by: hosting community outreach events across the country, educating municipal officials and religious organizations about RLUIPA’s requirements, and providing additional training and resources for federal prosecutors. The first community outreach event under the initiative will be held on June 25, in Newark, New Jersey, led by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey.  The Department today is also launching a new web page, including an information page and easily accessible complaint portal, a new Q and A document on RLUIPA, and other materials. In addition, the Department has created a new RLUIPA tool kit for Department lawyers working on RLUIPA cases, and is holding a webinar on June 26 for providing training and resources for U.S. Attorney’s offices.

In conjunction with this announcement, the Justice Department also filed a lawsuit under RLUIPA against a New Jersey Borough over its rejection of an Orthodox Jewish congregation’s building permit application.The Woodcliff Lake Zoning Board, the complaint alleges, obstructed on three different occasions from 2005-2013 the Valley Chabad’s attempts to purchase property for the construction of a new house of worship.

For more on RLUIPA, see the Baptist Joint Committee’s RLUIPA Resource page.