Attorney General Jeff Sessions has launched an initiative to strengthen the religious freedom rights of churches when it comes to building, expanding, purchasing, or renting facilities.
The "Place to Worship Initiative" is an education program that aims to help federal agencies and attorneys understand how to carry out a federal law passed in 2000 known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). Travis Weber of Family Research Council says RLUIPA mandates that the government make every effort not to place a substantial burden on churches and prisoners when it comes to their places and manner of worship.
"This is a law that protects religious freedom for those imprisoned and those institutions that need protection from others who are targeting their locations for zoning or other efforts," says Weber.
RLUIPA was passed under President Bill Clinton and has been used to keep local governments from taking church property so it can raise their tax bases, for example. But Weber says lately federal bureaucracies and their lawyers seem to have forgotten the statute exists.
"A lot of lawyers don't even know that it's out there and can be used to protect places of worship that are targeted by government agencies," he shares.
RLUIPA has been used to protect synagogues, mosques, and faith-based schools as well as the rights of prisoners to have the items they need for worship while incarcerated. Weber says it's another effort from the Trump administration that demonstrates its goodwill toward people of faith.
"President Trump's DOJ is doing a good job protecting religious freedom in this area," he argues, "and we really are advocating for it to be protected across the board."
Sessions reported the DOJ will conduct public events and training about RLUIPA as part of its Place to Worship Initiative. The first such event is set for Monday, June 25, in Newark, New Jersey.
"By raising awareness about our legal rights," the AG said last week, "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."