The city council of Burbank, Illinois, passed a new zoning law late last year banning churches from building in commercial areas. The action came after Rios de Agua Viva, a Hispanic congregation, signed a $900,000 contract to transform an old restaurant into its new sanctuary.
The congregation did what many have done before it: it filed a lawsuit alleging violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a 2000 federal law designed to protect houses of worship from discrimination.
More than a decade after RLUIPA's passage, however, many religious institutions face lengthy, costly battles to exercise their freedom to worship, said Richard Baker, an attorney who is representing the Burbank church.
"Churches do not realize the fight they're in," Baker said. "If you go into a commercial district, they say you're wrecking their tax base. If you go into residential, they say you're disturbing their peace."
While the issue is not new, Baker said, "The objections to churches obtaining zoning do seem to be heating up under the [economy]."
Eric Rassbach, national litigation director for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, echoed Baker's assessment: "There are many, many more cases where municipalities are trying to zone out churches to keep their property on the tax rolls. I would suspect it's related to the economy because of tighter budgets for local governments."
In Houston, churches recently raised objections over a proposed drainage fee by city officials. In Mission, Kansas, churches filed a lawsuit after being charged a "transportation utility fee" to help fix roads.
In the case of Burbank, Mayor Harry Klein told the Chicago Tribune, "It's obvious—every city likes to see their tax base grow, ...