The Administration’s Laudable Commitment to Religious Rights

It’s not an acronym that readily falls off the tongue, but for all the difficulty in pronouncing RLUIPA, it has proven an important tool in preventing, among other things, improper discrimination against houses of worship, including shuls.

The “Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act,” passed in 2000 by then-President Bill Clinton, gives religious institutions a way to avoid zoning law restrictions on their property use.

The law was the basis of a lawsuit filed by the Justice Department last week against Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, for zoning practices that have prevented a Chabad shul from building a shul on its property and for taking steps to keep the congregation from building one anywhere else in the borough.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions referenced the lawsuit before participants in an Orthodox Union Advocacy Center leadership mission in Washington, touting RLUIPA. He also lauded a new policy, the “Place to Worship Initiative,” which aims to help the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division bring more cases against towns and others who use zoning laws to block houses of worship and other religious institutions from building, renting or expanding.

“Too often, religious schools and their students face discrimination,” Mr. Sessions said. “Some local officials even try to keep them out of their backyard by abusing zoning laws.”

The Attorney General picked up that theme later at the Washington offices of the law firm Jones Day. He said that the Justice Department has settled 24 civil cases with 90 plaintiffs who challenged religious employers for not providing services that went against their beliefs.

At the Orthodox Union gathering Mr. Sessions addressed what he characterized as an increasingly hostile environment for people with religious convictions, and referred to the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, in which the Supreme Court recently found that the Colorado civil rights commission had shown “hostility” to a baker’s religious convictions.

“In recent years,” the Attorney General observed, “the cultural climate has become less hospitable to people of faith and to religious belief. Many Americans have felt that their freedom to practice their faith has been under attack.”

Mr. Sessions also praised efforts to prevent anti-Semitic hate crimes throughout the country, and applauded “significant steps” that he said have been taken “against Islamist terrorism.”

The Attorney General, laudably, has been a vocal advocate for religious freedom. Last year, he issued a government-wide legal guidance urging stronger protection for religious freedom, informing all U.S. government offices that the “free exercise of religion includes the right to act or abstain from action,” and his most recent remarks show his determination to continue to defend the rights of religious Americans.

In the Orthodox Jewish world, the most common obstacles to the practice of our faith come in the form of zoning laws, like the one being challenged in Woodcliff Lake, making the administration’s “Place to Worship Initiative” a particularly happy development.

In a number of communities, zoning and other local ordinances have been wielded by some residents as weapons to prevent the construction of shuls or eruvin. The resulting litigations have caused much rancor, tied up courts and wasted untold amounts of time and energy.

Even more disturbing, though, than the practical upshot of the regulatory obstacles is the sentiment that so often blatantly accompanies some efforts and, likely, quietly underlies others.

Knowing that Orthodox Jews must live within walking distance of their shuls, and that the building of a shul makes a neighborhood attractive to Orthodox families, citizens who wish to prevent an influx of Jews will often seek whatever roundabout way they can to try to avoid having to have Jewish neighbors, especially identifiably Jewish ones.

The Orthodox community, along with all religious communities, must be grateful to President Trump and his Attorney General for their unabashed and strong commitment to religious rights.

As Mr. Sessions said last week: “This administration is animated by that same American view that has led us for 242 years: that every American has a right to believe, worship and exercise their faith in the public square.

“It has served this country well, and it has made us not only one of the most tolerant countries in the world, it has also helped make us the freest, most generous — and the strongest.”