Attorney General Jeff Sessions trumpeted the Department of Justice’s record of civil rights enforcement during his tenure Wednesday, and vowed to defend religious groups facing disparate treatment.
The attorney general delivered remarks before an intimate gathering of litigators, pastors and conservative financiers at the Alliance Defending Freedom’s (ADF) summit on religious liberty, where he detailed DOJ’s enforcement record respecting hate crimes and discrimination.
“We are aggressively enforcing our civil rights laws, our hate crimes laws, and laws protecting churches and faith groups,” Sessions said. “Since January 2017, we have obtained 11 indictments and eight convictions in cases involving arson or other attacks or threats against houses of worship. Our civil rights division has also obtained 13 indictments in other attacks or threats against people because of their religion. And we are not slowing down.”
In that connection, the Justice Department launched an initiative to increase enforcement of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) in June. RLUIPA is a federal law that prohibits local government from discrimination against religious groups through zoning laws, and protects the freedom of prisoners to worship while incarcerated. (RELATED: Liberal Group Behind Kavanaugh Resistance Is Hiding Its Funding)
Since then, the department has brought lawsuits and filed briefs supporting marginalized religious groups in several states.
One case, brought concurrently with the initiative’s launch, alleges the town of Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, weaponized its zoning ordinances against an orthodox Jewish congregation called Valley Chabad. Beginning in 2005, the town zoning board allegedly thwarted Valley Chabad’s multiple attempts to buy property in Woodcliff Lake, then denied its requests to expand existing facilities.
The DOJ also filed a brief in July supporting the Jagannath Organization for Global Awareness (JOGA), a Hindu assembly that hopes to build a temple in Cooksville, Maryland. JOGA brought a civil suit against Howard County, Maryland, alleging violations of RLUIPA.
Sessions was criticized for addressing an ADF conference in July 2017, as the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) features the ADF on its list of designated hate groups. Some claim SPLC has abused its civil rights legacy to tarnish conservative groups with mainstream views.
The AG rejected SPLC’s characterization, and connected its tactics with what he cast as growing hostility to the historical tenants of orthodox religious belief.
“You’ll notice that they don’t rely on the facts,” he said. “They don’t make better arguments. They don’t propose higher ideals.”
“You and I may not agree on everything, but I wanted to come back here tonight partly because I wanted to say this: you are not a hate group,” he added.
Sessions went on to note that ADF lawyers have prevailed nine times at the U.S. Supreme Court in the last seven years. Just last term, ADF won two merits cases: the much-watched Masterpiece Cakeshop case, and a challenge to a California law requiring pro-life crisis pregnancy centers to disseminate information about state-funded abortions.
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