Justice Department Initiative Aims to Protect Houses of Worship

The U.S. Justice Department will intensify its efforts to bring up lawsuits against municipalities that discriminate against religious establishments, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Wednesday.

The initiative, called the “Place to Worship Initiative,” is centered on bringing cases against towns and cities that use zoning laws to prevent houses of worship — churches and mosques, for example — from building.

“In recent years, the cultural climate has become less hospitable to people of faith and to religious belief,” Sessions said. “Many Americans have felt that their freedom to practice their faith has been under attack.”

The announcement came during an event for the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center — an Orthodox Jewish advocacy group — in Washington, D.C. Sessions also announced the Justice Department would be filing a lawsuit against a New Jersey town for denying the building of an Orthodox Jewish synagogue.

“Religious Americans have heard themselves called deplorables,” Sessions said. “They’ve heard themselves called bitter clingers.”

Sessions referred to comments made by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama during their presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2008, respectively. Clinton made no reference to religion in her 2016 speech.

Heather Weaver, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU, told VOA the initiative was a welcome step from the Justice Department, provided that they enforce it equally based on all faiths.

“Based on past actions and policy, there are concerns that this administration will enforce that law equally among states,” Weaver told VOA, referring to the Trump White House’s signing of several executive orders restricting immigration from a group of Muslim-majority countries.

Sessions also commended the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case, in which the court ruled 7-2 that a Colorado baker could refuse to bake a cake for a gay couple, based on religious freedom.

“There is no need for the power of the government to be arrayed against an individual who is honestly attempting to live out — to freely exercise—his sincere religious beliefs,” Sessions said. “There are plenty of other people to bake that cake.”

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