Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox Jewish organization, welcomes today’s announcement by Attorney General Jeff Sessions regarding the “Place to Worship Initiative”. Through the Initiative, the Department of Justice, in conjunction with the U.S. Attorney’s Offices, will take steps that will go far in strengthening the awareness of the religious protections afforded by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). Agudath Israel was pleased to play an active role on Capitol Hill in crafting and successfully promoting RLUIPA and, since its passage, in litigating cases involving its application.
We also greet with enthusiasm the Department’s announcement that it has filed a lawsuit today against the Borough of Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, in which it alleges that the borough and its zoning board violated RLUIPA when it denied zoning approval to Valley Chabad to build a synagogue on its property and proceeded to take steps to keep the congregation from building a house of worship anywhere else in the borough.
Among the most formidable obstacles to the free exercise of religion today relates to the limitations imposed upon synagogues and other houses of worship by local zoning and land use laws. In recent years, we have seen several jurisdictions attempt to block the building, buying, renovation and rental of facilities for organized worship and for other religious activities, leading to much public discord in local courthouses and city halls.
More ominously, restrictions on places to worship and other religious entities have been sought and utilized in some cases as a discriminatory means of keeping some religious groups from moving in and settling in specific towns and neighborhoods. This is particularly true in regard to the Orthodox Jewish community, whose Sabbath laws require synagogues to be within walking distance of its adherents, and therefore within, or close to, residential areas. The knowledge that “if you zone out Orthodox synagogues, you zone out Orthodox Jews” has been an ugly reality that our families and communities have had to face.
The Department’s plans for increasing RLUIPA awareness through hosting community outreach events and informational webinars, educating municipal officials and religious organizations, providing additional training and resources for federal prosecutors, and creating a new RLUIPA web page and tool kit, will all contribute to a better understanding of the rights enjoyed by religiously-observant Americans and ultimately to the better safeguarding of those rights. And the Department’s action in bringing the Valley Chabad lawsuit shows that it is serious in backing up words with action when the law is not being followed.