Church Files Friendly Lawsuit against City

CHICAGO—Immanuel Baptist Church filed a lawsuit in district court last Friday after the city prevented it from purchasing property and establishing a permanent home in its University Village neighborhood. The church argues that the city’s zoning ordinance violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 or “RLUIPA,” as it imposes stricter parking requirements on religious assemblies than on nonreligious assemblies such as theaters and libraries. RLUIPA’s equal terms provision states that “no government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that treats a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution.”

But in Chicago, religious assemblies are required to have an 8 to 1 ratio of seats to parking places. Other nonreligious assembly uses, however, have less stringent parking requirements and in some cases, no parking requirements. The city requires no parking whatsoever for “live theater venues” with less than 150 seats, or for cultural exhibits and libraries for the first 4,000 square feet. The church property fits the bill on both counts, seating a maximum of 146 persons while consisting of less than 4,000 square feet. The church property has no onsite parking but street parking is widely available and the surrounding neighborhood consists mostly of vacant lots. The church has been unable to work out parking arrangements with any of its neighbors, either through purchase of land or a shared parking lease, but it does not see the need to even though the city is persistent.

Pastor Nathan Carter said, “We are committed to our neighborhood and seek the same goal as the city: a flourishing and beautiful community! That’s why the majority of our members live, work, play, shop, and serve close by. Many who attend our church walk, bike, take public transportation, or use ride-sharing. We believe that one of the advantages of urban life is that automobiles are optional. While parking lots can sometimes be convenient, we don’t have a need for one at this time. And if we were a nonprofit theater, we wouldn’t have any parking requirements.”

The church began renting the space at 1443 W. Roosevelt in August 2011 and has been granted an occupancy permit by the city. The property owner also received a letter from the Bureau of Planning and Zoning indicating that the church is a permitted use. The church later formed an agreement with the owner to purchase the building and the deal was ready to close in June 2016. Chicago Zoning Plan Examiner Noah Szafraniec assured the church that it would not have problems with zoning because of its pre-existing use. Alderman Jason C. Ervin submitted to the Department of Planning and Development a letter in support of the church

Despite these assurances and its permitted use, an assistant commissioner with the city informed Pastor Nathan Carter that the church still needed to meet the city’s parking requirements and that the city must determine if a religious assembly use is something it wants to promote on a commercial corridor such as Roosevelt Road. The complaint states that the church wishes this to be a “friendly lawsuit” to help the city cut through its unnecessarily complex zoning procedures.

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