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U.S. Attorney's Office, DOJ Address Religious Land Use Claims With Synagogue in Millburn


By: Richard L. Smith

The U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of New Jersey and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division have taken a significant step in addressing claims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) in a statement of interest filed today in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey. Ad The statement released by The U.S. Attorney's Office emphasizes that an Orthodox Jewish congregation's claims under RLUIPA are prepared for federal court consideration, highlighting the commitment to protecting religious communities from discrimination and ensuring the freedom to worship without hindrance.

U.S. Attorney Philip R. Sellinger stated, "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."

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division reiterated the purpose of RLUIPA, saying, "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 pertains to the Chai Center for Living Judaism v. Township of Millburn lawsuit, which alleges that the denial of an Orthodox Jewish congregation's application to construct a synagogue imposed a substantial burden on their religious exercise, discriminated against them based on religion, limited their religious assembly unreasonably, and treated them unfairly compared to secular uses.

The lawsuit also challenges certain aspects of the township's land-use regulations, including a requirement that houses of worship must be located on lots of at least three acres in size.Ad

The statement of interest clarifies that the congregation's claims must be assessed based on RLUIPA's statutory elements, and state-law standards of review do not apply to RLUIPA claims.

It also argues that the congregation's RLUIPA claims are ready for adjudication in federal court because the township's zoning denial reached a final decision, thereby preventing them from using their land for religious purposes.

RLUIPA is a federal law safeguarding religious institutions from burdensome or discriminatory land use regulations. The Place to Worship Initiative, launched by the Justice Department in June 2018, focuses on RLUIPA's provisions that protect the rights of houses of worship and other religious institutions to worship on their land.

In New Jersey, the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Civil Rights Division have utilized RLUIPA to combat various forms of religious discrimination, including antisemitism.

They have also enforced RLUIPA to support religious freedom, such as securing consent decrees allowing the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge to build a mosque and supporting the legal positions of a Muslim congregation in Vineland and a Native American tribe in Mahwah.AdAdditionally, the Department has hosted outreach events to combat religious discrimination under RLUIPA, promoting dialogue between religious leaders and the legal community, with plans for further outreach events in the coming months.