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Friday, January 25, 2019

Church's RLUIPA Claims Against City Back to District Court

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued an opinion in a case involving a challenge by a church to a municipality's interpretation and application of its zoning ordinance in The Church of our Lord Savior Jesus Christ v. City of Markham.

The church has been operating out of a single family residence for over 15 years. When the City learned of the church's use of the property, the City filed a lawsuit asking the court to enjoin the church's operation until it obtained a conditional use permit. The church applied, and was denied, a permit, which lead to the current lawsuit against the City for alleged violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) as well as the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).  The church argues that the City treats religious uses on unequal terms with secular uses and unreasonably limits where religious uses can operate in the City, creating a substantial burden on religious exercise.

In defense, the City argued that the church's lawsuit was not "ripe" because it did not apply for variances from applicable parking regulations. The City ultimately awarded the variances to the church, as well as a conditional use permit. The district court then ruled in favor of the City on the basis that the church's claims were not ripe when they were filed. 

The church appealed, and the Seventh Circuit overturned the ruling in favor of the City. The Seventh Circuit determined that the key question in the case is whether operating a church on the property was a permitted or conditional use. Although the church had been issued a conditional use permit, it continued to argue that it didn't need one because it interpreted the City's zoning ordinance to allow churches by-right on the property. The City responded that churches are conditional uses in the residential districts and because the church received a conditional use permit, its case was moot as the district court ruled. The Seventh Circuit determined that the case was not moot, and remanded it back to the district court to address whether operating a church on the property is a permitted or conditional use under the City's zoning ordinance. The court also rejected the City's argument that the church failed to establish any right to damages, noting that nominal damages may be appropriate. 

So, this case will go back to the district court for more proceedings.


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