The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and filed a statement of interest today in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey explaining that an Orthodox Jewish congregation’s claims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) are ready to be decided in federal court.
“The U.S. Attorney’s Office is committed to ensuring that all religious communities in our District have the ability to worship freely and without discrimination,” U.S. Attorney Philip R. Sellinger said. “We will continue our work to enforce RLUIPA, and to ensure that local boards apply the law fairly and correctly so that communities of faith may exercise their fundamental rights and that their land use applications are not unlawfully denied on the basis of their religion or in a manner that unlawfully burdens the free exercise of religion.”
“RLUIPA is designed to ensure that religious groups of all faiths do not face unjust barriers when seeking to establish places to worship,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said. “Local land use boards cannot unfairly or discriminatorily deny a religious group’s application to use land for religious purposes. When local officials use the guise of zoning restrictions to block or restrict religious groups, this not only contravenes our nation’s commitment to religious freedom, it also violates federal law.”
The statement of interest was filed in Chai Center for Living Judaism v. Township of Millburn, a lawsuit alleging that the denial of an Orthodox Jewish congregation’s application to build a synagogue imposed a substantial burden on the congregation’s religious exercise, discriminated against the congregation based on its religion, unreasonably limited its religious assembly, and treated it worse than comparable secular uses. The lawsuit also alleges that certain parts of the township’s land-use regulations, including its requirement that houses of worship be located on lots at least three acres in size, violate RLUIPA. The township filed a motion, arguing that the RLUIPA claims should be dismissed based on a state-law standard used by New Jersey state courts to review zoning decisions. The motion also argues that the RLUIPA claims are not ready to be heard in federal court because the zoning denial was based on procedural grounds.
RhThe statement of interest explains that the congregation’s claims must be evaluated based on the statutory elements laid out in RLUIPA, and that state-law standards of review do not apply to RLUIPA claims. The statement of interest also argues that the congregation’s RLUIPA claims are ready to be adjudicated by the federal court because the township reached a final decision on the zoning application, which inflicted an injury on plaintiffs by preventing them from using their land for their religious needs.
RLUIPA is a federal law that protects religious institutions from unduly burdensome or discriminatory land use regulations. In June 2018, the Justice Department announced its Place to Worship Initiative, Place to Worship Initiative, which focuses on RLUIPA’s provisions that protect the rights of houses of worship and other religious institutions to worship on their land. More information is available at https://www.justice.gov/crt/place-worship-initiative.
As part of this initiative, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division have obtained relief under RLUIPA to combat antisemitism, including in Woodcliff Lake and Toms River, New Jersey. The U.S. Attorney’s Office and Civil Rights Division have also enforced RLUIPA to combat other forms of religious discrimination, including securing a consent decree to allow the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge build a mosque in Bernards Township, New Jersey, as well as filing Statements of Interest on behalf of legal positions put forward by a Muslim congregation in Vineland, New Jersey, and a Native American tribe, in Mahwah, New Jersey. Additionally, the Department recently hosted an outreach forum with religious leaders at Seton Hall Law School in Newark, New Jersey, on combating religious discrimination under RLUIPA, and plans to hold additional outreach events in the coming months.