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Ensuring Religious Freedom for All

Ten years ago today, President Clinton signed into law the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.   The law, which passed both houses of Congress unanimously and was supported by a broad coalition of religiously and ideologically diverse groups, addresses religious discrimination and government infringement of religious liberty in two areas:  local land-use laws, such as zoning and landmarking ordinances, and the religious exercise of persons confined to institutions.  The law was enacted in response to concerns that places of worship, particularly those of religious and ethnic minorities, were often discriminated against in zoning matters, and that individuals in prisons, mental health facilities, nursing homes and other institutions were frequently denied full religious freedom.  Upon signing the Act, President Clinton said:  
Religious liberty is a constitutional value of the highest order, and the Framers of the Constitution included protection for the free exercise of religion in the very first Amendment.  This Act recognizes the importance the free exercise of religion plays in our democratic society.
 In the  10 years since its passage, RLUIPA has helped secure the ability of thousands of individuals and institutions to practice their faiths freely and without discrimination.   As detailed in a report (PDF) released by the Justice Department to mark the anniversary, the law has been used to protect the rights of a wide variety of faith groups in a wide array of settings.  The report details the Department’s enforcement record:  The Department has opened 51 RLUIPA land-use investigations, filed seven lawsuits, filed  10 amicus-briefs, and intervened in 71 lawsuits to defend RLUIPA’s constitutionality.
  • Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist land-use cases made up a disproportionate number of the Department’s RLUIPA investigations–13 times their representation in the population.
  • Half of the Department’s land-use investigations involving Christians have involved racial or ethnic minorities.
  • Of the 18 land-use matters involving Muslims reviewed by the Department of Justice,  eight have been opened since May of this year.
 Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Thomas E. Perez, in opening remarks at an event organized by the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy to commemorate the anniversary, noted that efforts to enforce RLUIPA are one part of the Obama Administration’s broader efforts to protect religious freedom. 
This work is perhaps as important today as any time in our history.  We have clearly made great progress in furthering civil rights, and our nation is a far more tolerant one than just decades ago.  But we know that there are people in this country who continue to face ignorance and intolerance.  And we know that it is our responsibility to stand up for them, to use the tools available to ensure that the protections of our Constitution are granted to all, and to continue to push forward so that our founders’ vision of true religious liberty can be realized by all.
In addition to the 10-year report, the Justice Department also released a series of questions and answers (PDF) to provide technical assistance to local and state officials who are responsible for compliance with RLUIPA.  RLUIPA is enforced by the Civil Rights Division’s Housing and Civil Enforcement Section and Special Litigation Section.  To learn more, visit the www.justice.gov/crt.
Updated April 7, 2017