DOJ Announces Place to Worship Initiative

Written by Steven Dimitt, NACDB Member & Attorney for Jackson Walker

As churches and religious organizations expand and grow, they can face obstacles and push back from municipalities. Common complaints from municipalities typically revolve around alleged parking or traffic concerns. However, these alleged concerns are sometimes merely a charade to prevent a tax-exempt religious organization from occupying an otherwise taxable piece of property.

RLUIPA: A Federal Statute to Help Religious Organizations

Local governmental bodies may even try to restrict the church’s religious practice by limiting the locations that a church may exist in the city or even placing impermissible conditions on the church’s practice. Fortunately, in 2000, Congress passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), a bipartisan statute that embodies two American ideals: the right to own property and the right to practice one’s religion freely. RLUIPA is a federal law that protects places of worship and other religious uses of property (including religious schools and religious social service providers) in the zoning and landmarking process from actions by local governments that:

  • Place substantial burdens on religious exercise;
  • Treat religious assemblies and institutions worse than nonreligious assemblies and institutions;
  • Discriminate against religious assemblies or institutions based on religion or religious denomination; or
  • Totally or unreasonably exclude religious assemblies and institutions from a particular municipality or county.

Although the law has been in effect for eighteen years, the Department of Justice has indicated that “far too many people and communities remain unware of the law, or do not fully understand the scope of its provisions.” In fact, a July 2016 report by the Department of Justice revealed that the number of RLUIPA investigations on a per year basis has remained pretty constant since the enactment of the law.

The Government’s Place to Worship Initiative

On June 13, 2018, in order to address continuing RLUIPA violations, the Attorney General announced the Place to Worship Initiative.  The goal of the Initiative is to “focus on protecting the ability of houses of worship and other religious institutions to build, expand, buy, or rent facilities—as provided under by the land use provisions of [RLUIPA].”

The Initiative seeks to increase the DOJ’s enforcement of RLUIPA, and educate religious leaders, county and municipal officials, and the general public about RLUIPA. In announcing the initiative, Attorney General Sessions provided the following statement:

“The Constitution doesn’t just protect freedom to worship in private—it protects the public exercise of religious belief, including where people worship together,” Attorney General Sessions 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. President Trump is an unwavering defender of the right of free exercise, and under his leadership, the Department of Justice is standing up for the rights of all Americans. By raising awareness about our legal rights, the Place to Worship Initiative will help us bring more civil rights cases, win more cases, and prevent discrimination from happening in the first place.”

A detailed Statement of the Department of Justice on the Land Use Provisions of RLUIPA with Questions and Answers (June 13, 2018), is available here. The DOJ also launched a new web page, which provides more information on RLUIPA and its protections.

Examples of Potential RLUIPA Violations

(a)       Substantial Burden Example

A church is denied a permit to build an addition to accommodate more Sunday school classes, which it believes it needs to carry out its religious mission. This may violate RLUIPA if the municipality cannot show a compelling reason for the denial.

(b)       Equal Terms Example

A church leases space in a storefront. Zoning officials deny an occupancy permit because houses of worship are forbidden in that particular zoning district. However, fraternal organizations, meeting halls, and banquet facilities are all permitted as of right in the same zoning district. This may violate RLUIPA.

(c)        Discrimination Example

A Baptist congregation is denied a building permit for a church despite meeting all of the requirements for height, setback, and parking required by the zoning code. The zoning administrator is overheard making a disparaging remark about Baptists. If it were proven that the permit was denied because the applicants were Baptists, this would violate RLUIPA.

(d)       Totally or Unreasonably Excluding Houses of Worship Example

A municipality, seeking to preserve tax revenues, enacts a law that no new churches or other houses of worship will be permitted. Such a total exclusion may violate RLUIPA.

Jackson Walker has worked with the DOJ on a few RLUIPA cases in the past. We found the DOJ to be a tremendous advocate and asset to help resolve a RLUIPA dispute. For more information on Jackson Walker’s RLUIPA practice please visit