Eric Treene has gone to court to defend Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, and people from other minority faiths for more than 25 years. If you ask him why, he points to the Bible and the Westminster Confession. Treene, an elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, is motivated by his faith to defend religious freedom—especially the freedom of those he disagrees with.
Treene was a lawyer for Becket and then, for nearly 20 years, special counsel for religious discrimination in the civil rights division of the United States Department of Justice. He developed and oversaw the enforcement program for the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). Since leaving the federal government, Treene has taught the First Amendment at Reformed Theological Seminary and Catholic University and continues to litigate discrimination cases as a senior partner at Storzer and Associates in Washington, DC. This spring, Treene was honored by the Freedom Forum as a “champion of free expression.”
He spoke to CT about the problem of religious discrimination in America and why it’s so important that Christians advocate for religious freedom.
You’ve spent a lot of your career defending religious land use. Why do government officials in America today oppose religious land use?
Usually it’s because they’re zeroed in on developing commerce. A lot of what you see is the demands of the marketplace steamrolling religion.
One of my early cases, for example, was a church that had very carefully gathered several plots of land at a key intersection, but the town wanted Costco to have that spot. The town tried to use eminent domain to seize the property to build a Costco.
Is it because they hate churches? No. Again and again, what we see is discrimination against places of worship not so much out of animus but because they would rather have a commercial property that’s generating tax revenue.
There’s a very powerful economic engine in our society that often trivializes faith. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) is one way churches can push back against that.