We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, religious land use disputes often take a long time to resolve. World Outreach Conference Center v. City of Chicago, Nos. 13-3669, 13-3728 (7th Cir. 2015) is no exception to the rule. The case, which Judge Posner observed “will soon have lasted as long as the Trojan War” and referred to as “messy and protracted litigation,” was remanded back to the district court on June 1, 2015. The Seventh Circuit found that the lower court erred in granting the City’s partial motion for summary judgment after finding that many of the burdens imposed on the plaintiff were not “substantial.” For a recitation of the case facts leading up to the most recent oral argument, as told by the plaintiff’s attorney Noel W. Sterett of Mauck & Baker, refer to our Guest Commentary: Seventh Circuit Hears Oral Argument Again in World Outreach Conference Center v. City of Chicago.
In its 2009 decision, the Seventh Circuit found that the World Outreach Conference Center (World Outreach) may have been substantially burdened by the City of Chicago’s refusal to grant, for two years, a license to World Outreach to operate a community center and rent 168 single-room occupancy apartments (SROs) on a temporary basis to needy persons. World Outreach wished to operate out of a building formerly operated by the YMCA to conduct substantially similar activities as had been conducted by the YMCA. For years, the YMCA operated under the then-current zoning as a legal nonconforming use without any request or order by the City that it obtain a special use permit (SUP). Since nonconforming use status runs with the land, the Court concluded that World Outreach was entitled to the same status. However, when World Outreach applied for the required licenses (which were granted to the YMCA as a matter of course) it was denied and told to apply for a SUP.
In 2005, the City filed suit against World Outreach in state court, but the case was voluntarily dismissed. Both the District Court and the Seventh Circuit recognized the 2005 action as frivolous, and the June 1, 2015 decision affirms the district court’s grant of costs and fees associated with defending the action:
It’s true that to show that the suit violated RLUIPA, World Outreach had to show that the attorneys’ fees that it had incurred constituted a “substantial burden” on its religious activities. It’s hard to imagine a vaguer criterion for a violation of religious rights. But a frivolous suit aimed at preventing a religious organization from using its only facility—a suit that must have distracted the leadership of the organization, that imposed substantial attorneys’ fees on the organization, and that seems to have been part of a concerted effort to prevent it from using its sole facility to serve the religious objectives of the organization (to provide, as a religious duty, facilities for religious activities and observances and living facilities for homeless and other needy people)—cannot be thought to have imposed a merely in-substantial burden on the organization.
The Seventh Circuit concluded that the district court erred in finding, at the summary judgment stage, that World Outreach was not substantially burdened by the City’s actions other than filing the frivolous lawsuit. The evidence presented in opposition to the City’s motion was “too well balanced” to support summary judgment in the City’s favor: the court noted the two-year delay in granting World Outreach’s licenses, the “animosity” of the City alderman, and the difference in treatment between World Outreach and the YMCA.
Finally, for “guidance on remand,” the court considered World Outreach’s damage claim based on the fact that the federal government could have housed up to 168 Hurricane Katrina survivors at World Outreach, paying up to $750 a month per room. Although the court found the evidence presented on the point was “weak,” it also concluded that proof of such damages was an issue for trial.
Judge Cudahy provided a concurring opinion – notable at least for its brevity:
“Unfortunately; and I think the opinion must be stamped with a large ‘MAYBE.’”