The Seventh Circuit recently reversed a district court’s decision finding a church’s RLUIPA claims were unripe and moot because it was granted parking variances and a conditional use permit after the church brought suit.  The case involves the Church of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (“Church”).  For the past 15 years, the Church has gathered at a residential home in the City of Markham’s R-3 One-Family Residential District for worship services, choir rehearsals, and Bible studies.  In 2012, as the Church’s congregation grew and its religious activities expanded, it remodeled the garage into a chapel.  The work consisted of installing a new roof, new windows, and pews at a cost of about $40,000.  Months after the Church completed this work the City of Markham brought an injunction against the Church to have the Church apply for a conditional use permit for its expanded religious activities.  The City denied the conditional use permit and the Church sued, alleging violations of RLUIPA’s equal terms, substantial burden, and unreasonable limits provisions and Illinois’ Religious Freedom Restoration Act (see our prior post about this case here).

The Church asserted that the City’s zoning code treats religious uses of property on unequal terms with secular uses.  Specifically, the Church contends analogous secular uses, such as theaters, are permitted as of right in districts within the city, but churches are subject to conditional use approval.  The Church argued that the unreasonable limitations provision was violated because there is no district where religious uses are permitted as of right.  Finally, the Church claimed that the City’s zoning code (as-applied and on its face) substantially burdened its religious exercise.

Two years into the case, the City argued for the first time that the Church’s claims were not ripe because the Church did not apply for variances from applicable parking regulations.  The District Court ordered the Church to apply for such variances.  The City Council passed two ordinances that purported to grant the Church parking variances and a conditional use permit.  But the ordinances required the Church’s signature to accept all terms and conditions imposed, which the Church refused.  The District Court then ruled that the Church’s claims were unripe and rendered moot as a result of the ordinances.

The Seventh Circuit reversed the District Court:

This approach – blurring the distinction between zoning use and parking regulations – led to problems in the summary judgment decision before us.  The variances might relieve the church from certain parking regulations, but they say nothing about whether the church’s use of the Property is permissible.  And a conditional use permit does not moot the church’s claim that it does not need one and is entitled to be treated as a permitted use as of right.  Accordingly, the district court’s summary judgment decision must be reversed.

The Seventh Circuit punted on the question of whether the final decision requirement articulated in Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, 473 U.S. 172 (1985), should apply beyond the takings context.  According to the Court, even if it did apply, the final decision requirement was met here because the Church was denied a conditional use permit before bringing suit.  The Seventh Circuit also ruled the case was not moot, because the Church had never accepted the terms and conditions proposed by the City as part of the ordinances granting parking variances and a conditional use permit.

The decision in Church of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ v. City of Markham (7th Cir. 2019). is available here.