Chicago-area church again denied right to worship in its office building

Tuesday, July 13, 1999

A Chicago-area church has again been told it cannot hold worship services in its downtown office building.

The Vineyard Christian Fellowship Church has been fighting the Evanston, Ill., City Council since 1997 for the right to worship in the office building it owns downtown. The building is in an area zoned for commercial office use.

Church members claim that the zoning ordinance infringes on their right to practice religion.

The June 28 decision by the City Council to again deny the church's request was a disappointment to church officials. The Rev. William Hanawalt, the church's pastor, said that he had recently spoken with council members and was told that if the church offered social services to the community it would be granted permission to worship in the downtown building — once a new application was received by the city.

“So we began the six-month application process over again,” Hanawalt said.

Roger Crum, Evanston city manager, said that Councilman Arthur Newman suggested the church make a yearly cash payment of $35,000 to the city to compensate for its tax-exempt status.

“We felt compelled to agree,” Hanawalt said. The church was willing to do what was requested, if it could worship in its building, he said.

Newman was unavailable for comment.

“Zoning districts are to be preserved,” Councilwoman Ann Rainey said. She said the council's decision had nothing to do with the First Amendment, that it was strictly a zoning issue.

The office building also is used for concerts, music rehearsals and classes six days a week.

“We can have a Christmas pageant but not a Christmas service,” Hanawalt said.

Despite strong support for the church from the community and from other ministers, he said, the council rejected the church's request.

Crum said that the majority of the City Council members were unwilling to change zoning laws to accommodate worship facilities.

The council “felt that that type of zoning was not appropriate for that area,” Crum said.

The City Council first denied the church's request in 1997.

The church filed a lawsuit against the City Council in July 1998 alleging that Evanston zoning laws infringed on members' rights to practice religion. When the church entered into negotiations with the City Council it dropped the suit. Now, Hanawalt says, the church must decide whether to file another lawsuit.

Hanawalt says that in the meantime the church is looking for a place to rent for use as a worship center, or it may sell the downtown building altogether.