Sessions Announces DOJ‘s Religious Freedom Effort

Attorney General Jeff Sessions outlined a new effort by the Trump administration to prioritize protecting religious freedoms — saying the Justice Department will bring more lawsuits against cities that try to discriminate against houses of worship.

The in remarks Sessions delivered Wednesday in conjunction with a new case filed against Woodcliff Lake, N.J., 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," Sessions said in remarks at the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center's annual meeting in Washington, D.C. "Many Americans have felt that their freedom to practice their faith has been under attack."

"This feeling is understandable. Religious Americans have heard themselves called deplorables. They've heard themselves called bitter clingers," he said referring to comments from Hillary Clinton and former President Barack Obama to describe certain groups of voters.

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

The new 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."

In addition to the zoning laws, Sessions also said the Justice Department would reinforce its fight against hate crimes, noting an uptick in anti-Semitic hate crimes.

"Make no mistake: hate crimes are violent crimes. And reducing violent crime is our top priority," Sessions said.

Reuters contributed to this report.