When is this Church like that Library?” The District Court for the Northern District of Illinois considered this question in its review of the City of Chicago’s motion to dismiss a RLUIPA equal terms claim brought against the City by Immanuel Baptist Church (“Church”). The Court’s recent decision follows last year’s review of the broader question “When is a church like a library?”(see our prior post here).

This story begins in 2016, when the property the Church had been renting for years was offered for sale. Prior to purchasing the property, which is located in Subarea B of the City’s Planned Development 896 (PD 896), the Church requested a determination from the City regarding the adequacy of parking available at the property. Religious assemblies in such zones 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, among other things, the City’s parking requirements for religious and secular assemblies are illegal on their face under RLUIPA’s equal terms provision. 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.

Applying the Seventh Circuit’s relevant zoning criterion test – an equal terms violation exists if a religious land use is treated less favorably than a secular land use that is similarly situated to it with respect to the accepted zoning criterion (see River of Life Kingdom Ministries v. Village of Hazel Crest) – the Court determined that for the purpose of a facial challenge, the Church failed to show that the parking needs of a typical library are comparable to a typical church. Although the Court dismissed the Church’s facial challenge, it granted the Church leave to amend its complaint to assert an as-applied claim under the same provision.

In October 2017, the Church files its Amended Complaint alleging that the City’s actions violated RLUIPA’s equal terms provision by providing libraries with ample exceptions to the City’s parking requirements, while refusing to provide such exceptions for the Church. The City has moved to dismiss the Church’s as-applied claim.

Again applying the Seventh Circuit’s relevant zoning criterion test, the Court explained that, to survive a motion to dismiss, “the Church must allege facts that plausibly show the existence of a similarly situated secular comparator that is treated better than the Church . . . with regard to [the relevant] zoning criterion—the need for off-street parking.” The Church alleged that two secular comparators, the Lozano Library and the Taylor Street Library, were better treated than the Church with respect to parking.

Lozano Library: Pointing to allegations that the Lozano’s Library’s public meeting room can accommodate up to 60 people (the size of the Church’s congregation) and that the Library hosts several weekly events, the Court found it “plausible that both the Church and the Lozano Library generate ‘groups of people coming and going at the same time’ such that their respective parking needs are the same.” Additionally, the Court found it plausible that the Church had been treated on less than equal terms with the Lozano Library, where the Church alleged that (i) the City made ample exceptions to its parking ordinance for libraries but has failed to do so for the Church, and (ii) the Lozano Library should have 14 parking spaces under the relevant zoning ordinances, but currently offers none.

Taylor Street Library: In contrast, the Court found the Church’s allegations regarding the parking needs of the Taylor Street Library, which was still under construction, merely speculative and therefore insufficient to establish the Taylor Street Library as a comparator.

The Court’s decision in Immanuel Baptist Church v. City of Chicago, No. 17 C 00932 (N. Dist. Ill. 2018) is available here.

Original photography by Smart Chicago Collaborative, some rights reserved.