Posted by: Patricia Salkin | January 13, 2010

Church’s SRO Use Protected Under RLUIPA but Landmarking Law Did Not Violate RLUIPA

The Seventh Circuit issued an opinion combining two distinct RLUIPA cases.  Each matter is discussed separately below.

World Outreach Church bought a former YMCA building in 2005, and although the building continues to operate as a recreational living facility with space for religious services, the Court notes that “there is no doubt that even the recreational and other nonreligious services provided at the community center are integral to the World Outreach’s religious mission, just as the rehabilitation centers operated by the Salvation Army are integral to the Salvation Army’s religious mission.”  The church wanted to continue to rent out 168 living units to low-income individuals, just as the YMCA had done as a nonconforming use (such use, under the Chicago zoning ordinance, runs with the land).  However, to provide single-room occupancy (SRO), the church needed to apply for a special SRO license, as the license does not run with the land under the City zoning ordinance. The City of Chicago denied the application on the grounds that the zoning required a special use permit to operate the YMCA in the zoning district and that they could not obtain such a permit since the use was prohibited in the district.  The City then filed and later dropped an allegedly frivolous state court suit to block the Church’s plan.  The city still did not issue the SRO license. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals noted, “As a result of the City’s actions beginning with the initial denial of the SRO license, World Outreach was impeded in its religious mission of providing living facilities to homeless and other needy people and incurred substantial legal expenses as well.” The court further observed that, “The picture painted by the complaint is of malicious prosecution of a religious organization by City officials, although the plaintiff doesn’t use the term.” The Court held that the Church may sue under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) for damages despite the city’s arguments that RLUIPA is unconstitutional and that an SRO facility is not religious.  The Court stated that, “Souls aren’t saved just in church buildings.” 

The second case involved a RLUIPA challenge to the City of Peoria’s landmarking law, previously reported on this blog, under which the City denied the Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church’s application to demolish its historic building to make way for a “Family Life Center.” The Seventh Circuit found that the denial did not violate RLUIPA Noting that the landmark designation is a modest burden, the Court observed that, “The building has not been rendered uninhabitable by the designation. Trinity can sell it and use the proceeds to finance the construction of its family-life center.”  Although the Church argued that it “lost money renting the building prior to seeking demolition” and that the building is “not economically viable for residential use,” the Court found no support in the record for these claims. Further, since  alternate sites were available, RLUIPA was not violated.  

 World Outreach Conference Center v. City of Chicago and U.S. v City of Peoria,  2009 WL 5125822 (C.A. 7th IL.  12/30/09)

 The opinion can be accessed at: http://www.ca7.uscourts.gov/fdocs/docs.fwx?submit=showbr&shofile=08-4167_002.pdf


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