Number of religious land use cases spikes under Trump administration
The Justice Department is flexing an arcane but potent law to address a spike in complaints from religious groups and tribes locked in zoning and permit battles with local officials.
In less than a year, the number of investigations spurred by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 has doubled from about seven annually to 14, and the number of court cases has jumped from one a year to seven in the 10 months.
RLUIPA has had an awakening under President Trump, who in 2017 issued an executive order making religious liberty a priority for federal agencies. The Justice Department responded in June with its Place to Worship Initiative to make sure organizations aren’t being punished because they’re religious.
The increased activity has also come with a change in the work.
Under President Obama, the Justice Department bragged about riding to the rescue of mosques. Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, told a Muslim advocacy group in 2016 that they’d increased the number of cases defending Islamic interests from 10% under the Bush administration to about 40%.
Under Mr. Trump, it’s synagogues that appear to be benefitting from renewed attention.
A Justice Department official said the change has to do with trends and demographics throughout the country.
“The more you see the building, the more you will see conflicts that arise and that tends to be these days Orthodox Jewish communities,” the official said.
The administration has already filed one lawsuit against a New Jersey community it said was blocking Valley Chabad’s 10-year quest to build a new place of worship. It also has filed cases involving two churches and an American Indian tribe, also battling local communities who resist the religious institutions’ demands for space to worship.
Roman Storzer, a Washington, D.C., attorney who pursues RLUIPA claims nationwide, said many of the disputes he’s seen involve Orthodox Jewish communities in New York and New Jersey.
“It certainly has been the case in the past there has been discrimination suffered by Muslims, but I think that more recently there is a growing upswell of bigotry and hostility against Orthodox Jews,” Mr. Storzer said.
The Justice Department lawsuit filed last June came after the Valley Chabad tried to construct a new place of worship on three different pieces of land, but the Borough of Woodcliff Lake rejected the attempts, denying its zoning application and raised concerns with transportation and esthetic.
New Jersey U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito said the borough was “repeatedly meddling” in Valley Chabad’s attempts to buy land, and gave “misleading reasons” for denying the zoning application.
Henry Klingeman, the lawyer representing the borough against the DOJ, said there’s no evidence of discrimination.
“Woodcliff Lake continues to want to work with the Department of Justice and Valley Chabad to resolve the dispute,” Mr. Klingeman said.
RLUIPA doesn’t grant exemptions to zoning laws, but it is intended to make sure those laws are not applied disparately.
In one case the Justice Department joined in March in New York, the Christian Fellowship Center said the Village of Canton allowed social clubs to gather, and permitted theaters in the same zoning district, but wouldn’t allow a church, whose use would have been similar to those others.
But Marci Hamilton, a legal scholar in church-state litigation, said RLUIPA is “an awful law” that usurped authority from states and local communities to determine land use because they end up threatened with millions of dollars in litigation over claims of discrimination, which she said is extremely rare.
“The reality is these lawsuits divide communities,” she said.
She isn’t surprised, though, about the increase in RLUIPA filings from Mr. Trump’s Justice Department.
“The political power of the religious entities in the Trump administration is extraordinary at the Department of Justice. They’ve essentially been driving policy,” she said.