In Myers v. City of Chicago (N.D. Illinois 2012), the plaintiff, Nathan Myers, purchased a house in Chicago to rent to Loyola Universitys chapter of the Sigma Pi Fraternity. Because the zoning regulations classify fraternities and sororities as special uses, Myers tried to circumvent the special use discretionary review by claiming that the fraternity’s use was, in the essence of the local zoning, a monastery, not a frat house. To support this argument, Myers relied on Sigma Pis mission statement: In the Service of God and Man.
After local zoning officials rejected Myers assertion (no doubt a shock to Myers), he sued, alleging an equal protection violation. Myers claimed that the City had treated him differently than other similarly situated fraternities, namely the Alpha Delta Gamma Fraternity (ADG), which operates its fraternity house, just up the street from Myers house, without a special use permit.
The Court found that Myers attempt to compare himself with ADG fails. The admitted facts show that the ADG house began as a permitted use in 1969 and remained a valid use by operation of the grandfather clause after the later amendment of the zoning ordinance. By contrast, Myers purchased his property long after fraternities and sororities were required to have a special use permit to operate in an RT4 district.
The Court stated: Myers cannot show that the defendants acted irrationally in interpreting and enforcing the zoning ordinance in a way that differentiates between a college frat house and a monastery. No matter how closely Sigma Pi hews to the letter of its motto, Myers has fallen far short of proving that the Sigma Pi fraternity brothers are actual Religious Brothers, that is, in the words of the ordinance, persons (such as nuns or monks) under religious vows. The defendants interpretation of this language to exclude fraternity houses therefore passes the rational basis test.
The Court concluded by stating: Therefore, Myers can do no more than show that his venture was thwarted by an ordinance that applies equally to all similarly situated property owners. And thwarted is a strong word since he didnt seek a special use permit before suing and so did not know whether the use might have been allowed. His equal protection claim therefore fails.
This isnt the first time that a group of college men has tried to circumvent zoning regulations by claiming that it is a religious organization. In 2006, nine students at Georgetown University moved into a house and filed to incorporate as a nonprofit religious organization, which they called the Apostles of Peace and Unity, in an effort to obtain an exemption from the citys limit of six unrelated people per home. City officials instead deemed the Apostles of Peace and Unity a fraternity and ordered them to comply with the regulations (click here to read more about the Apostles of Peace and Unity).
Municipalities might want to consider getting out ahead of situations that may lead to RLUIPA and other constitutional lawsuits by those claiming to qualify as religious entities under zoning regulations, and the best defense may be a good offense. For example, a careful review, and perhaps amendment, of the zoning regulations, including those involving religious use, may be in order. As an exercise, municipalities might try gaming their regulations to find the weak spots by enlisting staff and public officials to take on roles as potential applicants and make hypothetical applications.