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Church Has No Standing to Fight Homewood Zoning

Originally published in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin


Written by Jessie M. Molloy

11/27/2020


A small congregation hoping to open a church can’t challenge Homewood’s zoning rules over a property it hasn’t purchased yet, a federal judge ruled last week.


U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman dismissed the lawsuit by the Word Seed Church and the Civil Liberties for Urban Believers against the south suburb for lack of standing.


The complaint, filed in August, alleged Homewood is violating the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act by requiring a special-use permit for churches anywhere in the village.


Congress passed RLUIPA in 2000 to prevent land-use restrictions from imposing a “substantial burden” on religious exercise.


The church, which consists of seven congregants who currently meet in the home of their pastor in Markham, sought to purchase property to host its services and “serve the community.”


But its real estate transaction this summer fell through when the property seller would not add a zoning contingency to the contract.


Places of worship are deemed special uses and must demonstrate to the village board that their use will comply with 12 different criteria.


The church alleged the zoning also violates the equal protection clause because non-religious organizations like art galleries, museums, restaurants, taverns, funeral homes, schools, parks, playgrounds, and libraries don’t need a special-use permit.


The congregation never applied for the special use.

The village argued the church had no standing because it did not allege an injury-in-fact.


The village cited the 1990 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Love Church v. Evanston which held that “speculative claims cannot constitute distinct and palpable injury.”


Love Church also involved a church challenging zoning rules before it purchased a property and applied for special use. The church here contended the passage of RLUIPA negated the effect of that 20-year-old holding.


To show standing, the church also argued it suffered monetary damages when it paid the legal costs toward the failed real estate deal.


Coleman sided with the village: “The problem with these alleged injuries is that this lawsuit challenges Homewood’s conduct in promulgating the ordinances, not the third-party seller’s conduct in rejecting the real estate transaction.”


“The closest the [c]hurch comes to establishing that Homewood caused these injuries is that the [c]hurch cannot petition for a special use permit until it has a right of ownership in property pursuant tot the Homewood ordinance, but if sellers refuse to include a zoning contingency in the contract, the Church cannot purchase property. This chain of causation, however, is too attenuated to confer standing because it relies on the independent action of a third-party,” she wrote.


She dismissed the lawsuit without prejudice and denied the motion for preliminary injunction.


The church’s attorney John W. Mauck of Mauck & Baker LLC, said the church is considering its next options.


“We are either going to file a motion to reconsider or appeal the case to the 7th Circuit,” Mauck said. “We knew going in that precedent was against us with Love Church, but that case was from the 1990s and we believe that the Religious Land Use Act, which was enacted in 2000, has changed that law by establishing that having a place to worship is a civil right for a religious organization.”


Mauck suggested the case should be reconsidered because of the “increased social awareness of the discriminatory impact these tight zoning laws have on small churches, minority churches and mosques.”


Word Seed Church and Civil Liberties for Urban Believers were also represented by Andrew S. Willis of Mauck & Baker.


Homewood is represented by Brandon K. Lemley & Thomas E. Soule of Querrey & Harrow Ltd. They did not return a request for comment.


This case is The Word Seed Church, et al., v. Village of Homewood, No. 20 C 4976.

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