In Immanuel Baptist Church v. City of Chicago, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois recently ruled that the City of Chicago had violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act’s (RLUIPA) substantial burden provision in applying its parking code regulations to an Immanuel Baptist Church (Church). In so doing, the Court reaffirmed that RLUIPA applies when a governmental entity applies a case-by-case evaluation of land use standards to a religious use applicant. This even involves a municipality’s application of a parking formula to calculate the number of parking spaces for an applicant.

Since 2011, the Church has rented two properties (containing two buildings) located in the City’s Planned Development 896 zone (Property). Under the City’s zoning code, the Church was required to have “one off-street parking spot for every 8 seats of occupancy.” The Church had the capacity for up to 146 individuals, which meant it was required to have 19 parking spots. Although the Church did not conform to this requirement, the City did not take any enforcement action to prohibit the Church from holding its religious services. The issue only arose in connection with the Church’s desire to purchase the Property in 2016 when the Church sought a letter from the City (presumably confirming zoning compliance) at the request of a lender. In 2018, the Church entered into an agreement with another property owner to obtain the required number of off-street parking spaces. The next year, the City passed an ordinance that reduced the Church’s parking requirement to zero. In the end, the Church purchased one of the two buildings it sought to acquire in 2016 and some, but not all, of the property.

The Church sued the City, alleging violations of RLUIPA’s equal term and substantial burden provisions, as well as the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. The Court granted summary judgment in favor of the City on all claims except for the substantial burden provision claim, which was to proceed to a bench trial, after which the Court ruled in favor of the Church. 

The Court reaffirmed that when a “‘government regulation does not involve a mere numerical or mechanist assessment but involves criteria that are at least partially subjective in nature,’ the government’s application of the regulation or ordinance can constitute individualized assessment.” In other words, RLUIPA applies a “case-by-case evaluation” of land use standards that may permit “potentially discriminatory denials.” Here, the Court concluded that the City engaged in an individualized assessment because it was based on the church’s individual case which involved “layers of complexity, flexibility and discretion.” 

The Court determined that “the City burdened the Church’s ability to effectively use and convert the building and develop and grow its ministry when it was prevented from purchasing the two properties.” In reaching this result, the Court gave weight to the fact that “the Church was a small church and had limited resources.” According to the Court, the Church spent “significant resources and money” trying to comply with the City’s parking code requirement. The Church’s pastor felt “distracted from his leadership of the ministry,” which resulted in the Church losing “additional ministry opportunities that the additional building would have afforded.” The Court rejected the City’s claim that any burden was self-inflicted because the City did not take any enforcement action or punitive measure against the Church or landlord. Further, the City issued an occupancy permit to the Church in 2012.

The Church sought over $400,000.00 in damages for rental increases from 2016 through the date of closing, the loss of the opportunity to purchase one of the buildings, pre-litigation legal fees, having to lease a parking lot for a year, increased mortgage payments and insurance premiums, and lost income, among other things. The Court limited damages to only $14,590 for expenses related to the Church’s lease of the parking lot when the Church tried to comply with the parking code requirement.

Read the full case here.