Originally published by the Illinois State Bar Association
"How did you get into that?" I am often asked. I suppose when a lawyer has committed his life and practice to serving Jesus, and then spent a dozen years doing real estate transactions, it should not be a huge leap to end up handling zoning disputes for people of faith.
But still I was startled when Joe Zavagnin called me. "John, I am an elder at a growing church in Rockford," he began. "You do not know me or Family Christian Fellowship, but we need to sue Winnebago County over a zoning decision. God has shown us that you are to be our attorney."
How does the skeptical attorney-believer respond? A Jewish tradition directs the rabbi to rebuff a potential convert until the third request.
My response to Joe was, "I do not litigate, and I do not go to Rockford!" His reply: "That's OK. I will bring the pastor in tomorrow to explain the details."
Jack Morgan, a successful car dealer turned Pentecostal minister, was no less dissuaded by my limiting conditions. He even agreed to pay cash for my services!
"John, I agree God has called you to take this case," he said, "so even if you cannot try it yourself, you can find someone who will but you run the show!" Thus is a career directed.
The church had bought a 12-acre parcel of land previously used as a junior high, and planned to put a K-8 school there and worship in the gymnasium.
During a contentious five-day trial, in which upscale neighbors vituperated against this intrusion to their neighborhood, four of the five experts, including the county's land planner, agreed that the proposed use was appropriate.
I was surprised to hear an angry judge declare: "We're not going to allow 10-story prayer towers in Rockford!" (The congregation was loosely affiliated with Oral Roberts University, which has a 10-story prayer tower, but the congregation did not plan to build one.)
There had not been a whit of testimony about Oral Roberts or any tower during the trial. Thus was a litigator baptized into the reality that judges have fallen natures like us.
After winning the case on appeal in the 2nd District, I concluded that this was easy work. Like many lawyers, I became so enamored of my arguments and legal theories, simply because a court had agreed with some of them, that I concluded all my ideas must be right.
Consequently, when Pastor Marzell Gill of Love Church, a small African-American congregation, told me of the difficulty in leasing a meeting place in Evanston, I figured we could win in a snap.
The reasons cited by the pastor were that "landlords say we need to first get a zoning permit, and that takes too long. They will not hold the properties for us while we get the city to approve it."
The Evanston ordinance had not even one zone where churches were a permitted use a dead-bang free exercise violation! Furthermore, Evanston allowed meeting halls without a permit a clear equal protection violation!
We went to federal court to get an injunction against the city and found that Judge John Grady of the Northern District bench agreed with our equal protection argument. I was to find the 7th Circuit less amenable; the appeals court said the church lacked standing.
Out went the case, out went the fee under the U.S. Civil Rights Act for constitutional violation, and in came depression. "God, I am not taking anymore of these cases," I said. "Nobody appreciates me, and the pay is lousy!"
God waited a discreet year for my self pity to abate before sending me a client in Connecticut. Grace Community Church was not being allowed to construct a building for worship on a 13-acre site in the town of Bethel.
The name intrigued me, so I did some research. Beth El, "the house of God" in Hebrew. had been founded in 1759 when Ebenezer Hickok and others petitioned the General Assembly for a new Congregational Church parish.
They wanted to erect a building in Bethel so they wouldn't have to travel to Danbury and find that church overcrowded by the time they arrived. Two hundred years later, the "House of God" had different zoning an ordinance that would not allow churches anywhere except by special permit.
I was drawn back into the fray by the challenge of weighing in on the tectonic shifts of culture from one society, where faith was cherished, nurtured and protected, to one where the forces of secularism and unenlightened rationalism seemed to give adult uses more zoning freedom than religious assemblies.
The fact that Grace Community was solvent helped a lot. Working with local attorneys who did not share the world view that I had with my clients was sometimes a problem. Should I pray with them over aspects of the case? If so, when and how explicitly and fervently?
After we won the Grace case, clients seemed to tumble in. Towns and cities everywhere were tightening zoning restrictions. Churches were the "odd man out."
Residential areas were built up and would not accommodate, much less welcome, the waves of new congregations propelled by upwardly mobile groups from the inner city or immigrants from Korea, Mexico, India and other distant lands.
Neighborhood groups often accused our clients of being "commercial uses," which belonged in the business district. Of course the businesses labeled them insufficiently commercial, a drag on sales! Many a pastor was dismayed to hear me explain that the building they had scrimped to buy could not be used for worship.
But with the bad news has come much good. In 1996, I undertook to represent Living Word Outreach against Chicago Heights. Dr. Darlene Young, the pastor of this Pentecostal congregation, had led them to purchase a building that had been used as a Masonic Lodge for 40 years.
She assumed that getting a special-use permit would be like getting the municipal business license she had obtained a few years earlier fill out some forms and pay $25 never contemplating that Chicago Heights would deny the church permission to worship.
She really began to sense trouble when another Pentecostal pastor took her aside at a party and prophesied that her church would be going to the Supreme Court, and would win!
I just wish Dr. Young had told me about the prophecy. Although we won in the trial court, the Appellate Court ruled that zoning, per se, was a compelling interest that in essence trumped all our statutory and constitutional arguments.
It was only after that dark day when the 1st District ruled against us that Dr. Young told me about the "Word from God" which had been delivered to her several years earlier. Eventually the Illinois Supreme Court did take the case and order the issuance of a special-use permit for the church.
The lesson for me and perhaps other attorneys? Ultimately, I hope I have learned to be myself, not hiding my faith but not being so explicit that others would feel cornered when working with me.
God still speaks! Are you listening and wondering what he is saying? If he tells you to get into church zoning litigation, take a deep breath and ask, "Are you sure that was you speaking God?"