C.L.U.B. v. City of Chicago, Illinois (2000-03)

Image: C.L.U.B. v. City of Chicago, Illinois (2000-03)

Being a church in the city of Chicago is no easy task, if you’re looking for property, that is.

Chicago zoning law allows churches in residential areas, but churches and other houses of worship are allowed in business and commercial zones only if they are granted a special use permit, requiring that they go through a complicated and prohibitively costly process. Moreover, such permits are often denied because of the opposition of the local alderman or other political factors. And many churches argue that it is “almost impossible to find a parcel of vacant land large enough to build a church in a residential zone” in the city today.

As a result, many Chicago churches are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Or rather, between a zoning official and a small space.

So, in the fall of 2000, C.L.U.B. (Civil Liberties for Urban Believers), an association of 40 churches in the Chicago area got together and decided to take action. They sued the City of Chicago, arguing that the city’s zoning laws violate the U.S. Constitution, the Illinois RFRA statute, and RLUIPA because they impose a substantial burden on churches wishing to occupy property in the city.

They argued churches had a harder time getting approved than “clubs and lodges,” “meeting halls,” and “recreation buildings and community centers,” none of which need “special use permits.”

The case wound its way up to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where the Becket Fund got involved. On June 26, 2002, we filed an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief on behalf of Calvary Chapel O’Hare. The U.S. Justice Department intervened in the case as well, and defended RLUIPA’s constitutionality, which the lower court had rejected.

On August 20, 2003, in a 2-1 decision, the Seventh Circuit panel affirmed the decision of the district court, finding no “substantial burden” placed on churches and concluding that, “Appellants fail to make a sufficient showing on essential elements of their RLUIPA claims.”

Apostle Theodore Wilkinson, Chairman of C.L.U.B., said in a statement after the Seventh Circuit decision was released, “The forty (40) churches in C.L.U.B. and certainly people of all faiths throughout Chicago are outraged by the majority opinion which neuters the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act passed unanimously by Congress in 2000. Also alarming is the Court’s conclusion that Chicago’s religious assemblies have no free speech protection from zoning laws. The majority opinion would apparently extend free speech protection to religious assemblies only if they allowed live nude dancing. The freedoms of speech, religion and assembly of all Chicagoans have all been trumped by aldermanic discretion.”

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