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Thursday, March 16, 2017

Court Finds that Church Sufficiently Stated Claims Under RLUIPA

A recent decision from an Illinois Appellate Court addressed whether a village may have violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) when it sought to compel a church to repair a historic building.  Village of West Dundee v.  The First United Methodist Church of West Dundee.

According to the complaint, the property was a historic building owned by the defendant church which had fallen into disrepair. The church had previously applied for a permit to demolish the building.  However, the permit was denied by the village’s appearance review commission, who wanted to see the building restored.  The church did not appeal this initial denial.  Several years later, the village cited the church for numerous property maintenance code violations following an inspection of the building.  When the church failed to remedy the violations, the village filed suit seeking to compel the church to repair the building. The church filed a counterclaim alleging various claims, including violations of RLIUPA. The church also sought an order authorizing demolition of the building. However, the church’s counterclaim was dismissed, and the church was ultimately ordered to repair the building.  

On appeal, the court first reversed the trial court’s dismissal of the church’s demolition counterclaim, explaining that when a municipality seeks one form of relief (either repair or demolition) under Section 11-31-1(a) of the Illinois Municipal Code, the building’s owner is entitled to file a counterclaim seeking the alternative form of relief.

The court then addressed the church’s claims under RLUIPA.  The church claimed that requiring the building to be repaired instead of demolished would cost large sums of money, and would potentially ruin the church financially. The court found that the alleged repair costs could qualify as a “substantial burden” on the church’s free exercise of its religion in violation of RLUIPA if ultimately proved at trial. Further, the court rejected the village’s argument that its property maintenance code was not a “land use regulation” covered by RLUIPA’s protections. The church had alleged that the village’s application of its property maintenance code restricted its use of the land, which the church intended to use as parking for its congregation. The court found these allegations clearly fell within the purview of RLUIPA, and that the church’s claims should not have been dismissed. 

The court also found that the church had a viable unequal treatment claim under RLIUPA.  The village had previously authorized the demolition of several other historic structures for commercial uses, in contrast to its denial of the church’s demolition request. The court found that these allegations of arbitrary enforcement were sufficient to state an unequal treatment claim under RLIUPA.

Finally, the court found that the church had sufficiently alleged an inverse condemnation claim.  The court cited the church’s allegations that the village had effectively denied it the use of the property, even if only temporarily, without instituting an eminent domain action.  The court held that this was all the church was required to allege in order to state an inverse condemnation claim against the village.

Post authored by Kurt Asprooth, Ancel Glink


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