An Illinois appellate court reversed a lower court’s dismissal of RLUIPA claims asserted by the First United Methodist Church of West Dundee (the “Church”) against the Village of West Dundee, Illinois (the “Village”), finding that the Church sufficiently stated claims under the substantial burden and equal terms clauses.

The case concerns a historic building located at 310 West Main Street in the Village (the “310 Building”).  The 310 Building, constructed in 1849 and located in the Village’s historic district, is currently one of the Village’s oldest historic structures.  The Church, which acquired the 310 Building in 1950, allegedly made certain efforts to maintain and repair it over the years.  By 2004, however, the 310 Building had been rendered uninhabitable, and the Church has not used or repaired it since.

Ten years ago, the Church applied to the Village for a permit to demolish the 310 Building, citing a need for additional parking for its congregation, which had been meeting at an adjacent property owned by the Church.  The Village denied this application, asking instead that the Church repair and maintain the 310 Building.  The Church did not appeal this decision.

Four years later, an inspection of the 310 Building allegedly revealed 14 property maintenance violations.  The Village issued the Church a correction order, requiring the Church to make certain repairs.  When the Church failed to comply with this order, the Village filed a complaint in the circuit court, seeking a court order to require the repairs.

In response, the Church filed a counterclaim, alleging that repairing the 310 Building would be substantially more expensive than demolishing it, and could financially devastate the Church.  The Church further alleged that the Village had approved the demolition of three other historic structures in the Historic District for commercial uses.  Moreover, the Church alleged that Village’s insistence on repair rather than demolition amounted to a “taking” of the 310 Building.

The trial court, which dismissed the Church’s counterclaims for failure to state a claim, ordered the Church to start making repairs within 14 days.  If it did not, the Court authorized the Village to initiate repairs and place a lien on the Church for repair costs, pursuant to Illinois Municipal Code § 11-31-1(a).  The Church appealed this decision.

On appeal, the Illinois Appellate Court, Second District, found that the Church had sufficiently stated claims under RLUIPA’s substantial burden and equal terms clauses, as well as claims sounding in inverse condemnation.

At the outset of its analysis, the Appellate Court notes that the section of the Illinois Municipal Code that permitted the Village to seek the subject court order requiring repair of the 310 Building also permitted the Church to file a counterclaim seeking an alternative form of relief, such as demolition.  See Illinois Municipal Code § 11-31-1(a).  Indeed, the Illinois Supreme Court has stated: “[In] provid[ing] for repair or demolition in the alternative[, section 11-31-1(a) of the Municipal Code] ‘contemplates repair where feasible and demolition where the state of deterioration is such that repairs would amount to a substantial reconstruction [of the building].’”  Village of Lake Villa v. Stockovich, 211 Ill. 2d 106, 127 (2004) (citing City of Aurora v. Meyer, 38 Ill. 2d 131, 136 (1967)) (emphasis added).

Turning to the Church’s RLUIPA claims, the Appellate Court found that the Village’s property maintenance code is a “land use regulation” as defined by RLUIPA, given that its application limits and/or restricts the Church’s use or development of its land. This finding is interesting, given that building and sanitary codes are often not found to fall within RLUIPA’s definition of a land use regulation. See some of our prior posts here, here and here. Instead, the Court reasoned:

In short, the Church owns the 310 building; it wants to use the building and the land for a particular purpose, but the Village is (allegedly) standing in the Church’s way.  Congress mandated the RLUIPA be construed ‘in favor of a broad protection of religious exercise’ and in our view, this case… presents the precise sort of situation that RLUIPA was designed to cover.

Upon review of the Church’s allegation that the cost to repair the 310 Building would potentially ruin the Church, the Court found: “By any reasonable measure, the burden imposed on the Church, taking the Church’s statement of it as true at this point, would certainly qualify as ‘substantial.’”

The Court further held that the Church’s allegation that the Village had approved the demolition of three other structures in the Historic District for commercial uses constituted a viable equal terms claim.  The Court characterized the Village’s act of granting a privilege to commercial land users that it denied to a religious institution as “arbitrary enforcement… sufficient to state a claim of unequal treatment under [RLUIPA].”

Finally, the Court found that the Village’s denial of a demolition permit could also constitute a taking without the formal exercise of eminent domain proceedings.  Accordingly, the Church’s inverse condemnation claims were improperly dismissed.

The full text of this opinion is available here.

Original photography by Elias Schewel, some rights reserved.