Civil Liberties for Urban Believers v. City of Chicago
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Many Chicago churches are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Or rather, between a zoning official and a small space.
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.
So in 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 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) statute, and the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act (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 went to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, where Becket got involved. In June 2002, we filed an amicus 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.
In August 2003, in a 2-1 decision, the Seventh Circuit panel affirmed the decision of the district court, finding no “substantial burden” placed on churches. Apostle Theodore Wilkinson, Chairman of C.L.U.B., released this statement in response:
“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.”