The Village of Northbrook, Illinois is no stranger to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), having successfully defended against claims that it violated the Act brought by Petra Presbyterian Church. See Petra Presbyterian Church v. Vill. of Northbrook, 489 F.3d 846 (7th Cir. 2007). The Village may once again find itself defending against an RLUIPA claim if it fails to issue a building permit to an Orthodox Jewish group seeking to build a synagogue.
Darchei Noam of Glenbrook, a modern Orthodox Jewish congregation of about 50 families, has applied for a building permit to construct an 8,300 square foot synagogue and parking lot on a 1.5 acre lot on property formerly used as a small garbage business in a residential zone. Because religious uses, such as the proposed synagogue, are allowed as-of-right in the residential zone, the Jewish group only needs a building permit, with no public hearing. Neighborhood opponents are concerned about increased traffic, potential drainage problems, and light pollution, and have collected over 200 signatures from those opposed to the synagogue. The neighbors aired their complaints at a recent meeting of the Village Board of Trustees, even though it is the Village staff, not the Trustees, who will make the decision on the issuance of the building permit.
Some of the Trustees said that a public hearing should be held to consider proposals involving significant changes in use. Their lawyer, Steven Elrod, who has considerable experience with RLUIPA, advised otherwise: “I strongly recommend that the village standby and not depart from its long-standing practices. Let your professional staff handle this matter as it is required and obligated and authorized to do.”
If the Village were to stray from this process, Darchei Noam might be able to make an RLUIPA equal-terms claim. RLUIPA’s equal-terms provision states: “No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that treats a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution.” 42 U.S.C. Section 2000cc(b)(1). Under this provision, municipalities considering applications from religious institutions must subject such applications to the same process under the same standards as those submitted by secular institutions, or else they may be found to violate RLUIPA. Irshad Learning Ctr. v. County of DuPage, 804 F.Supp.2d 697, 713 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 28, 2011). To avoid a potential equal-terms challenge, the Village may be well-advised to heed its lawyer’s advice.
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