“When is a church like a library?,” the District Court for the Northern District of Illinois recently asked. Immanuel Baptist Church (the “Church”) hoped to continue operations in a Chicago neighborhood when, in 2016, the property it had been renting for years was offered for sale. Prior to purchasing the property, the Church requested a determination from the City regarding the adequacy of parking available at the property.  Religious assemblies in such locations require one parking space per eight auditorium seats, and the City concluded that the Church could not meet this requirement.

The Church thereafter filed suit, claiming that the City’s parking requirement for churches facially violates RLUIPA and the Constitution’s equal protection clause. Specifically, it claimed that churches are treated worse than “cultural exhibits and libraries” that, if under 4,000 square feet, require no parking, and live theatre venues with less than 150 seats that likewise do not require parking.

In the Seventh Circuit, courts apply RLUIPA’s equal terms provision by questioning whether “a religious institution is treated less favorably than a secular land use that is similarly situated as to relevant zoning criterion.”  (citing River of Life Kingdom Ministries v. Village of Hazel Crest, 611 F.3d 367 (7th Cir. 2010).  As an initial matter, however, the Court clarified that a plaintiff moving for summary judgment on its claims has the initial burden of proving a prima facie violation of RLUIPA. Notably, the Court concluded, merely pointing out that a land use regulation differentiates between religious and non-religious uses is not enough to establish a prima facie violation and shift the burden of persuasion to the government to justify its ordinance. “Given the nature of a facial challenge,” the Court reasoned, “it would seem appropriate to demand evidence sufficient to support a reasonable inference that the sort of religious assembly at issue is comparable to the type of facially favored secular assembly in, if not all, at least its principal characteristics as they relate to the relevant zoning criteria.”

The “relevant zoning criterion” in this instance was whether churches are similarly situated to theaters and libraries in terms of the need for off street parking. First, the Court concluded that theaters could not be a relevant comparator because theaters are not allowed in the relevant zoning district that allows places of religious worship. Therefore, churches are treated better, not worse than theaters. Next, the Court concluded that libraries are not adequate comparators to the Church’s proposed use. It reasoned that the Church had failed to provide evidence that libraries attracted concentrated groups of people for regular events in the same manner as a church. While attending church services is “quintessentially a group activity… a visit to a library, to check out a book, or read, or research, is an individual action.” Of course, the Court noted, individuals may visit churches alone, and groups sometimes meet at libraries. For the purpose of a facial challenge, however, the Church failed to show that the parking needs of a typical library are comparable to a typical church.

The Court also considered the Church’s equal protection facial challenge to the parking requirement. Applying rational basis review and similar reasoning to that discussed in the equal terms context, the Court concluded that the zoning code was not facially discriminatory.

Although the Court dismissed both facial challenges to the code, the Court granted the Church leave to file an amended complaint to assert as-applied RLUIPA challenges.  The Court’s decision in Immanuel Baptist Church v. City of Chicago, No. 17 C 00932 (N. Dist. Ill., 2017) is available here.

Original photo by Christchurch City Libraries, some rights reserved.