EVANSTON, Ill. -- For the past six years, members of the Evanston Vineyard church have been free to meet, sing and pray in the building they own in this suburb just north of Chicago.
Just not on Sunday mornings. And they could not call it church.
That's because the building lies in an office zone, where, according to Evanston city code, membership associations (both secular and religious) and cultural institutions (like theaters and concert halls) are allowed, but worship services are not.
But a federal judge ruled March 31 that Evanston's zoning code violates the Vineyard's constitutional rights to free assembly, free speech and equal protection. In ruling against the city, District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer noted that Vineyard's congregants could legally stage a production of "Fiddler on the Roof," which includes a traditional Jewish wedding, but "could not host an actual religious wedding." She also noted that membership organizations, like "houses of worship," hold "ceremonies, social functions and fund-raisers, and other common activities."
"Evanston's claim that it has zoned purely for land use and not on the basis of religion is not supported by the facts," Pallmeyer ruled.
Following the ruling, William Hanawalt, executive pastor of the 700-member Vineyard church, expressed cautious optimism that the church's conflict with the city was over. The church held a Good Friday service in its building, but will not hold regular worship services until reaching a settlement on damages with the city.
The Vineyard hopes to recover its legal costs and some of the estimated $500,000 in rental fees it has paid for space to hold worship services over the last five years. Pallmeyer ordered the two parties to meet with a magistrate for settlement talks, then report back to her on May 29, said Vineyard attorney Mark Sargis.
"We feel a sense of gratitude and a sense of vindication," Hanawalt said, "but won't have a sense of relief until the last `i' is dotted by the city."
This is the second time the Vineyard has come close to resolving its dispute with the city. In 1999, the church dropped its lawsuit after reaching a tentative agreement with the city to pay $35,000 a year "in lieu of taxes" on the property. (Since it's owned by a church, the Vineyard's building is exempt from property taxes.) That deal fell apart after other local churches objected to the "pay to pray" nature of the agreement.
Roger Crum, Evanston city manager, said no decision on whether to appeal has been made. He said the judge's ruling pointed out a "technical inconsistency" in the city's code, causing religious groups to be treated differently than nonreligious groups. He also said the city is considering changing the ordinance. "Whenever a judge points out a discrepancy in our code," he said, "it's incumbent on us to amend it."
Crum noted that the city was not found to have violated the Vineyard's rights under the 2001 Religious Land Use and Incarcerated Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal law that protects churches against discrimination in land use cases.
Still, he admitted the city lost the suit. "As our attorney says, if you win on nine counts and lose on one, it's still a loss," he said.
The Evanston case is one of several federal lawsuits involving Chicago-area churches challenging local zoning codes. There are an estimated 50 similar lawsuits nationwide, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
A federal suit against the city of Chicago filed by a group of 50 churches and religious groups is currently on appeal. In late March, the Petra Presbyterian Church, a Korean-American congregation, filed suit against the suburb of Northbrook, Ill., for refusing to grant zoning approval for worship services in the office/warehouse building it owns. The Petra church, which currently rents space from another church, bought the building after an intensive search for other properties. Northbrook's zoning code is "even more stark" in its restriction of religious groups, said John Mauck, Petra's attorney.
"The Evanston case has the effect of religious discrimination," Mauck said, "but may not be deliberate religious discrimination. The Northbrook code singles religion out, and says, `You are not welcome.'" Petra Presbyterian Church claims that under the village of Northbrook's zoning code, "the Masons, the Republicans and the Glee Club" would be free to meet for social, political, educational or recreational purposes at the church's building, "but the Korean Presbyterians are not welcome to worship, pray and sing hymns." The Department of Justice announced in early April it was investigating claims that the village's code discriminates on the basis of religion.
Robert C. Larson, former director of Church Growth and Evangelism for the Evangelical Covenant Church, said many zoning conflicts are caused by "a faulty assumption" that churches belong only in residential areas. Larson, an ordained minister who has a Ph.D. in urban planning, said in the 1950s city planners designed residential neighborhoods with a central community center, park and church building. The idea, he said, "was that people would walk" to the neighborhood church and community center."
"That idea was flawed," said Larson. "Presbyterians didn't want to walk to the Episcopal church in their neighborhood. They wanted to drive to the Presbyterian church in someone else's neighborhood."
"People are more likely to drive past eight or 10 churches before getting to the one they want," added Mauck. That has lead to loss of political and emotional ties between churches and their communities. "And because they don't pay taxes," Mauck said, "church are often seen as necessary evils" instead of benefits to their community. That, he said, leads communities to enact zoning ordinances that restrict churches.
But Richard Hammer, editor of the Church Law and Tax Report, argued that communities cannot restrict "houses of worship" in the same way they treat other land uses, such as an office building or a Wal-Mart.
"The Constitution requires that churches be treated differently from Wal-Marts," he said. "Discount warehouses find no protection in the Constitution, but houses of worship do. So, at the end of the day it should take a compelling case to deny a church the right to locate where it wants."
At least one Chicago suburb has recently modified its zoning code to allow churches into more areas.
When the Calvary Chapel O'Hare bought a bowling alley to convert to a church in late 2001, the city of Franklin Park initially refused to grant an occupancy permit. After Calvary Chapel filed a suit based on RLUPIA, the village granted the permit and changed its code. The church is now making plans to convert the building, but reportedly will keep some of the lanes as a "perk for the youth group."
The Rev. Jeff Deane, pastor of Calvary Chapel, told Crain's Chicago Business that he believed RUIPIA forced the village to rethink its position. "The act seems to really have some teeth," he told Crain's. "Without it, I don't know where we would be."