US Justice Dept to focus on discrimination against houses of worship

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The US Justice Department said it is planning to ramp up efforts to bring more civil rights lawsuits against municipalities that try to discriminate against houses of worship.

The new initiative will be discussed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday (June 13) afternoon and marks the latest action by the Trump administration in its efforts to prioritise protecting religious freedoms.

It was announced earlier in conjunction with a new case filed against Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, over allegations it illegally denied zoning approval to an Orthodox Jewish congregation seeking to build a synagogue.

Sessions has come under scrutiny by civil rights groups who say his focus on religious liberty could give individuals and private businesses leeway to discriminate against other groups, such as gay, lesbian and transgender people.

The Justice Department under Sessions has taken several actions to champion the cause, including backing anti-abortion centers in a case over a California law requiring notices be provided on where women can receive state-funded abortions.

Last fall, Sessions issued interpretive legal guidance to all US government offices declaring that the "free exercise of religion includes the right to act or abstain from action."

The memo was used as the legal basis for the US Department of Health and Human Services to try and block requirements under the Obamacare law for employers to cover women's birth control.

The new "Place to Worship Initiative" aims to help the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division bring more cases against towns and others who use zoning laws to block churches, mosques or synagogues from building, renting or expanding houses of worship.

"Under the laws of this country, government cannot discriminate against people based on their religion - not in law enforcement, not in grant-making, not in hiring, and not in local zoning laws," Sessions said in a statement.

Sessions will be discussing the religious liberty initiative at the Washington offices of the law firm Jones Day.

Lawyers at Jones Day represent President Donald Trump's campaign and are currently defending it against a lawsuit filed by the Democratic party over allegations it colluded with Russia to meddle in the 2016 campaign.

Many of the law firm's alumni also now work for Sessions and have played key roles in reversing Obama-era legal positions on civil rights, including the department's current acting head of the Civil Rights Division, John Gore, and acting head of the Civil Division Chad Readler.