In MAUM Meditation House of Truth v. Lake County, Illinois, No. 13-cv-3794 (N.D. Ill. 2014), the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois ruled that Lake County, Illinois did not violate MAUM Meditation House of Truth’s religious exercise under state or federal law by requiring that it comply with certain building code requirements in connection with its proposed conversion of a home to a mixed-use home and meditation center comprising two rooms for small group meditation. MAUM estimated that approximately 20 people per day, two to five at a time, would use the facility to practice their religion. It argued at the local level that such a use should be deemed an “accessory use” under the building code rather than a “change of use,” because under the latter MAUM would be required to undertake certain renovations to comply with the code. MAUM alleged that these renovations, which included the addition of 10 parking spaces and the installation of two accessible restrooms of about 70 square feet, would cost approximately $200,000 and substantially burden its religious exercise.
MAUM sued Lake County for its failure to deem the use of the meditation center an accessory use, and brought claims under the Free Exercise clauses of the U.S. and Illinois constitutions; the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act (IRFRA); the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; and free speech and free association protections of the First Amendment. On July 16, 2014, the Court dismissed MAUM’s claims and denied its request for a preliminary injunction.
The District Court first concluded that dismissal was appropriate because MAUM had failed to exhaust its administrative remedies by seeking state court review of the Zoning Board’s decision under Illinois’ Administrative Review Law (65 ILCS 5/11-13-13). MAUM argued that it did not have to exhaust its remedies because it asserted a bona fide equal protection claim, which requires a showing of “governmental action wholly impossible to relate to legitimate governmental objectives.” (citation omitted). Because the Court determined that MAUM’s equal protection claim was insufficiently pled (discussed below), MAUM was not excused from the requirement that it exhaust the state court remedy.
Next, the District Court found that dismissal was appropriate because MAUM’s claims were insufficiently pled. Notably, the District Court concluded that MAUM failed to allege a substantial burden under IRFRA – an essential element for such a claim – because its claims were based only on the financial implications of Lake County’s decision. While noting that the term “substantial burden” holds the same meaning under IRFRA as it does under the Seventh Circuit’s interpretation of it under RLUIPA, the District Court explained that “[i]t is well established that there is no substantial burden placed on an individual’s free exercise of religion where a law or policy merely operates so as to make the practice of [the individual’s] religious beliefs more expensive.” (citations omitted).
The District Court dismissed MAUM’s Free Exercise claims for failure to allege that Lake County made an individualized assessment of the building code that would subject Lake County’s actions to strict scrutiny. It is interesting to note that the Court did not consider whether MAUM had adequately pled these claims to invoke any lesser form of judicial scrutiny, such as rational basis review. The Equal Protection claim failed because MAUM did not allege that the City intentionally treated it worse than any other individual or organization making a similar request, and because it never alleged that Lake County lacked a rational basis for deeming MAUM’s mixed-use house/meditation center a change of use.
MAUM’s free speech and free association claims also failed, so much so that the District Court characterized them as “nonsensical” due to MAUM’s misapprehension as to the meaning of content-neutral versus content-based speech or assembly. That is, MAUM claimed that “Lake County’s application of the building code is contrary to the text and therefore a content-based determination.” To the extent the building code incidentally regulates speech or assembly within places of worship, the Court stated “such regulation is motivated not by any disagreement that Chicago might have with the message conveyed by the church speech or assembly, but rather by such legitimate, practical considerations as the promotion of harmonious and efficient land use.” (quoting Civil Liberties for Urban Believers v. City of Chicago, 342 F.3d 752, 765 (7th Cir. 2003)). It also dismissed the due process claim on the ground that MAUM did not use the channels available to it to appeal the Zoning Board’s decision to state court.
MAUM’s Motion for a Preliminary Injunction – which requires a showing of a likelihood of success on the merits – was denied for failure to demonstrate the same.
* “a series of three victories, successes, or related accomplishments.” Merriam-Webster (www.m-w.com).