Church files suit challenging Evanston, Ill., zoning laws

Friday, July 24, 1998

Members of a church in Evanston, Ill., have sued the city council, alleging its enforcement of zoning laws substantially infringes upon their right to practice religion.

After a 10-year search, leaders of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship Church finally decided to buy a building for permanent use – in a district zoned for tax-paying businesses. Last year the city council overwhelmingly voted to bar the nonprofit church's request to change the zoning laws to allow worship services in the building.

Because of the council's decision, which rebuffed recommendations in support of the church by the city's planning commission and zoning board, the church argued in a suit filed this week that its religious-liberty rights, as well as other constitutional rights, have been unduly hampered.

The church has asked an Illinois circuit court to overturn the city council's ruling, stop the city from enforcing the zoning law, and award the church $500,000 in damages.

William Hanawalt, executive pastor of the church, which has approximately 800 members, said the city council's decision was aimed at religious groups and called it unfair.

“We have been shocked by the treatment we have received from the city and have felt our religious practices harassed, disregarded, disrespected and devalued by the actions of the city council,” Hanawalt said.

“We have unsuccessfully spent the last year trying to find another Evanston building to purchase for our church home. We don't want to use our congregation's offerings on a costly lawsuit against the city. We would rather spend the Lord's money on ministries to the poor and to our community's youth. But we will not back down or go away in the face of the city's opposition to our right to worship in our own building.”

Roger Crum, the city manager, said the city council did not treat the church unfairly and properly applied the zoning laws.

“The city council and zoning board heard all the testimony regarding the church's request for a special-use permit and decided that the commercial area was simply not an appropriate place for the church,” Crum said. “The location is one of the busiest, the traffic surrounding the area, at the moment, is one of the worst in Evanston, and access to the building is poor.”

Crum also said the city would have lost tax revenue by granting a special-use permit to a tax-exempt, nonprofit group. “The church was requesting tax-free use of a piece of property that has been historically used for commercial property.”

Just last month, the church was granted tax-exempt status for the property by the Illinois Department of Revenue. The church has used portions of the building for seminars, classes, meetings, meals, and musical, dramatic and dance performances. Crum said the city would ask the state revenue department to review its decision.

Conflicts between secular laws, such as zoning ordinances, and religious-liberty rights helped spur Congress' enactment of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. RFRA would have barred federal or local governments from enforcing laws that significantly restricted religious-liberty rights unless a “compelling interest/least restrictive means” test could be met. RFRA, however, was invalidated last year by the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court concluded that Congress did not have constitutional authority to tell state and federal courts which test to use when deciding if there have been violations of the free-exercise clause.

Since the act's demise, however, many state legislatures have worked to enact similar laws codifying the “compelling interest/least restrictive” means test, which has been described by Justice Anthony Kennedy as “the most demanding test known to constitutional law.”

Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar is being pressured by religious organizations to sign a recently passed religious-liberty protection bill that codifies the test.

Crum questioned whether the bill should be enacted.

“I think city officials throughout the state have grave concerns about the wording of the statute,” Crum said. “The fact is many questions are left unanswered regarding the government's ability to control and enforce its zoning laws.”

As the religious-protection bill is not law, the city merely has to show a reasonable basis for its decision to deny the church an exemption to the zoning law.

Instead of waiting for the legislation to become law, the church filed the suit on constitutional grounds.