The Department of Justice on Wednesday announced a new effort to prevent municipalities from discriminating against religious groups.
Dubbed the “Place to Worship Initiative,” the Justice Department has promised to ramp up enforcement of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, a law signed by President Bill Clinton protecting churches. The law makes it illegal for communities to use zoning ordinances to bar religious groups.
At an event Wednesday, Mr. Sessions said it is imperative that the government raise awareness about the protections available to religious institutions.
“In recent years, the cultural climate has become less hospitable to people of faith and to religious belief,” Mr. Sessions said. “Many Americans have felt that their freedom to practice their faith has been under attack.”
“This feeling is understandable,” he added. “Religious Americans have heard themselves called deplorables. They’ve heard themselves called bitter clingers.”
“Deplorables” and “bitter clingers” were derogatory terms used by the last two Democratic presidential nominees — respectively, by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-Sen. Barack Obama — to describe rural conservative voters.
As part of that initiative, the Justice Department on Wednesday filed a religious discrimination lawsuit against a New Jersey community accusing it of spitefully thwarting an Orthodox Jewish organization’s efforts to move into a bigger facility.
The lawsuit is the culmination of a Justice Department investigation that began last summer into the zoning practices of Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey. Both the borough of Woodcliff Lake and its zoning board are named as defendants.
“Make no mistake: Hate crimes are violent crimes,” Mr. Sessions said noting that numerous Jewish community centers have received bomb threats over the last year.
Valley Chabad, a Hasidic group, held meetings in a single-family home in Woodcliff Lake. When the group tried to expand into a larger property, the borough blocked them at every turn, according the lawsuit. First, the group tried to move into a property that was later seized by Woodcliff Lake through eminent domain.
Valley Chabad next tried to buy a larger property to build a school, temple and meeting house, but the township allegedly swooped in and acquired the land before the Jewish group could complete the deal, court documents say.
Between 2005 and 2013, Valley Chabad sought to purchase three different sites after nine years of searching for a suitable location, according to the Justice Department.
One construction application required 18 public hearings and 628 hours of work, but was nevertheless denied, Valley Chabad charged in its own lawsuit, filed last year.
Other accusations in the lawsuit include that Mayor Carlos Rendo, who was a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor last year, make derogatory comments, saying the organization wants to turn Woodcliff Lake into “little Jerusalem.”
Mr. Rendo denied the claim when it became a contentious issue during 2017 campaign.
“These allegations are completely false and do not represent me or my beliefs as an immigrant, a husband, a father or as an American,” he said in a statement.
The Justice Department claims the borough’s actions violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.
“The Constitution doesn’t just protect the freedom to worship in private — it protects the public exercise of religious belief, including where people worship together,” Mr. Sessions said announcing the lawsuit. “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.”
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