By Bob Smietana
A Chicago suburb that blocked a Hispanic church from buying a building has agreed to pay $459,801 in damages and legal fees.
The settlement ends an eight-year legal battle between the two parties. A court found last year that the city’s ordinances discriminated against the church.
In 2010, the Christian Assembly Rios de Agua Viva agreed to buy a shuttered restaurant in Burbank, Illinois, hoping to convert the site into a worship space for its small but growing congregation.
At the time, local zoning law allowed a church in the property as a special use.
After the church applied for a special use permit (SUP), the city changed the zoning law, barring churches or other nonprofits from the area.
City officials wanted to preserve the spot for a business, according to court documents, saying “it is not in the best interest of the community due to the loss of the historic use and tax monies,” according to published reports.
The church sued, arguing that the city treated the church differently from other organizations and, by doing so, violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
The church also claimed it had been denied due process and that the city had restricted its free exercise of religion.
The church lost in a lower court but won an appeal last year.
Judge Sarah L. Ellis said the city didn’t deny the church free exercise of religion or due process, but it did discriminate against the church.
“But because the City has not produced evidence justifying the treatment of churches on less than equal terms than seemingly similar secular institutions under the ordinance requiring the Church to obtain a SUP, the Court finds that that ordinance violated RLUIPA’s equal terms provision,” she wrote.
Christian Assembly Rios de Agua Viva eventually purchased another building. And the church is glad the legal battle with the city is over.
“We are pleased that we were able to settle this dispute,” Pastor Luis Ruiz said in a statement. “Our prayer is for Burbank to prosper in God’s ways and to never again engage in such hurtful discrimination.”
Zoning disputes involving churches or religious buildings are surprisingly common. A dispute over zoning is one of the most common ways for a church to land in court, reports Emma Green of The Atlantic.
“These fights matter because physical spaces matter,” Green wrote. “They can determine who makes the drive to morning services and who stays home; who remains in the fold and who grows disconnected from their faith; and whether people of all races, classes, and backgrounds are truly welcomed in, or whether the church doors are just too far away for some people to reach.”
Among church zoning disputes in recent years:
- The North Jersey Vineyard Church settled a suit against the Township of South Hackensack over a zoning code. The code was amended to allow the church to use a building it had purchased.
- The city of Dothan, Alabama, agreed to amend its zoning code, which barred churches but not similar secular groups from some areas.
- Several churches and a synagogue in Maryland have sued Baltimore County over land use issues.
- How a Playground in Missouri Just Helped Your Church’s Religious Liberty
- Child Abuse No Longer Most Common Reason for a Church Lawsuit
- Pastors’ Housing Allowance Faces Uncertain Future
BOB SMIETANA (@BobSmietana) is senior writer at Facts & Trends.