Justice Department Files Statement of Interest Supporting Native American Religious Land Use Case
The Department of Justice today filed a Statement of Interest in U.S. District Court in New Jersey supporting a lawsuit by the Ramapough Mountain Indians (Ramapough) that the Township of Mahwah (Township) violated the tribe’s rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person’s Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) by interfering with religious assembly on property the tribe owns in the Township.
“RLUIPA is an important law protecting the religious exercise of people of all faiths. The Department of Justice is committed to ensuring that this law and other laws protecting religious freedom are fully and properly applied,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Right Division.
RLUIPA protects the rights of all religious communities to worship on their land free from discriminatory barriers and unlawful burdens,” New Jersey U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito said. “Our office will continue to vigorously enforce the rights guaranteed by RLUIPA and take steps to ensure that it is applied correctly in our District.”
In the suit, Ramapough Mountain Indians, Inc. v. Township of Mahwah, filed last May, the Ramapough allege that the Township substantially burdened their religious exercise by rescinding a zoning permit that authorized religious worship, limiting the number of people permitted on the property for religious gatherings, demanding the removal of structures central to the Ramapough’s worship including a sweat lodge, a prayer circle, and an altar, issuing large fines, and initiating civil and criminal enforcement proceedings. The tribe also alleges that the Township treated it differently from other similarly situated nonreligious groups.
In September 2018, the Ramapough sought to amend their complaint. The United States’ Statement of Interest argues that the amended complaint properly state claims under RLUIPA. The United States argues that the Township has imposed a substantial burden on the Rampough’s religious exercise without adequate justification, and has not treated its use of the land equally with nonreligious uses of land. The Statement of Interest further argues that those RLUIPA claims, which allege that the Township’s conduct has “significantly chilled Ramapough’s use of the land for religious purposes,” are ripe for consideration by the court.
RLUIPA is a federal law that protects religious institutions from unduly burdensome or discriminatory land use regulations. Last year, the Justice Department announced its Place to Worship Initiative, which focusses on RLUIPA’s provisions that protect the rights of religious institutions to worship on their land. More information is available at www.justice.gov/crt/placetoworship.
In July 2018, the Department of Justice announced the formation of the Religious Liberty Task Force. The Task Force brings together Department components to coordinate their work on religious liberty litigation and policy, and to implement the Attorney General’s 2017 Religious Liberty Guidance.
Individuals who believe they have been subjected to discrimination in land use or zoning decisions may contact the U.S. Attorney’s Office Civil Rights Hotline at (855) 281-3339 or the Civil Rights Division Housing and Civil Enforcement Section at (800) 896-7743, or on the complaint portal on the Place to Worship Initiative website.