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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Ind. Decisions - 7th Circuit decides RLUIPA case today

Illinois cases, but a much-debated federal law are at the center of these two combined decisions today by the 7th Circuit.

In World Outreach v. City of Chicago / Trinity Lutheran v. City of Peoria, a 17-page opinion, Judge Posner writes:

We have consolidated for decision two cases presenting the recurring issue of the rights of religious organizations to avoid having to comply with local land-use regulations. Analysis requires threading our way through a maze of statutory and constitutional provisions and we begin there, which is to say with the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc et seq., Illinois’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 775 ILCS 35/1 et seq., and the Constitution’s free exercise, establishment, and due process clauses. * * *

So we move to our second case, which involves a challenge under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act to the application of Peoria’s landmark law to the building shown in the photograph at the end of this opinion. The Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church is located on property at the edge of downtown Peoria. In 1989 it bought an adjacent parcel that contained the building in the photo. Trinity applied to the city in 2000 for a permit to demolish the building. A neighborhood group filed an application to have the building designated a landmark under the City’s preservation ordinance. Peoria Municipal Code §§ 16-61, 16-86. The City granted the landmark application. Six years later Trinity again sought the City’s permission to demolish the building so that it could build on its site a “Family Life Center.” The City refused, and the refusal, Trinity argues, has imposed a substantial burden on its religious activities in violation of section 2000cc(a)(1) because the building is not suitable for the family-life center that Trinity envisages. The district court, disagreeing, granted summary judgment in favor of the City.

Any land-use regulation that a church would like not to have to comply with imposes a “burden” on it, and so the adjective “substantial” must be taken seriously lest RLUIPA be interpreted to grant churches a blanket immunity from land-use regulation. [ILB emphasis] * * *

The burden imposed on Trinity, a substantial religious organization, by the landmark designation that disables it from demolishing the apartment house is modest. 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. It argues that it “lost money renting the building prior to seeking demolition” and that the building is “not economically viable for residential use,” but there is no support in the record for these contentions. The prohibition against demolition could harm Trinity only if there were no suitable alternative site for building a family-life center. But there is—a 50-foot-by-80-foot empty lot on Trinity’s campus. Trinity complains that it would need certain zoning permits to build there which the City might deny it—but the City has committed itself in its brief and at oral argument to granting them. We imagine that the real purpose of this litigation is to extract a commitment from the City to allow Trinity to build the family-life center on the empty lot, and so viewed the suit has succeeded.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on December 30, 2009 01:37 PM
Posted to Ind. (7th Cir.) Decisions