By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department said on Wednesday it was planning to ramp up efforts to bring more civil rights lawsuits against municipalities that try to discriminate against houses of worship.
The new initiative, outlined by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, marks the latest action in the Trump administration's efforts to prioritize protecting religious freedoms.
It was announced 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.
"In recent years, the cultural climate has become less hospitable to people of faith and to religious belief. Many Americans have felt that their freedom to practice their faith has been under attack," Sessions said, speaking before the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center's annual meeting in Washington, D.C.
"This feeling is understandable. Religious Americans have heard themselves called deplorables. They’ve heard themselves called bitter clingers."
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 U.S. 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 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to try to 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.
"Too often, religious schools and their students face discrimination," Sessions said. "Some local officials even try to keep them out of their backyard by abusing zoning laws."
Sessions discussed the new religious liberty initiative at the Washington offices of the law firm Jones Day. Lawyers at the firm 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 U.S. presidential election.
Many Jones Day alumni now work for Sessions and have played key roles in reversing Obama-era legal positions on civil rights. They include the department's current acting head of the Civil Rights Division, John Gore, and acting head of the Civil Division Chad Readler.
According to Sessions, the Justice Department has settled 24 civil cases with 90 plaintiffs over what he called "the previous administration’s wrong application of the contraception mandate to objecting religious employers."
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Tom Brown)