The US Department of Justice announced Tuesday its new "Place to Worship Initiative," which aims to protect "the ability of houses of worship and other religious institutions to build, expand, buy, or rent facilities—as provided by the land use provisions of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA)."
The measure will prevent the government from discriminating against religious organizations in the zoning process. The initiative will work with district attorney's offices around the country to raise awareness of the RLUIPA provisions.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions believes this is a step in the right direction for religious freedom.
"The Constitution doesn't just protect freedom to worship in private—it protects the public exercise of religious belief, including where people worship together," he said. "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."
The Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents churches that have been unfairly targeted by local government, praises the decision.
"No city should use its zoning laws to engage in religious discrimination. Unfortunately, in the 18 years since Congress passed RLUIPA, local governments have done just that, blatantly disregarding the law," said ADF Senior Counsel Erik Stanley, director of the ADF Center for Christian Ministries. "For that reason, we commend the Department of Justice and the Trump administration for placing a much-needed focus on the freedoms churches and other religious groups have under this federal law."
Sessions says the goal of the new initiative is to make churches aware of their rights. "I'm hopeful that as more people learn their rights, they will speak out where discrimination exists and prevent further discrimination from happening," he said.