Juan Valencia, a Cuban Baptist pastor near Chicago's O'Hare airport, owns a $60,000 building the city says he cannot use to worship God.

Virginia Kantor wanted to buy an abandoned drive-in bank to set up an independent, Pentecostal church, but the city changed the building's zoning to manufacturing from commercial, thereby preventing its use as a church.

Dozens of other church leaders in the Chicago area have been denied the necessary building permits to practice their faith. In addition, in the past four years, Chicago has cited zoning violations in closing about 30 South Side storefront churches.

The battle over land in Chicago that pits the city against poor churches is repeated in urban areas throughout the country. At stake are tax dollars, religious freedom, and competing visions of what makes for a healthy and viable community.

HEADED TO COURT: In Chicago, frustrated clergy are taking the city to court. A coalition of 40 churches has filed a class-action suit against the city, claiming that Chicago's zoning ordinance enforcement is violating their constitutional right to freedom of religion.

"At the heart of the issue is that while community centers, theaters, and lodges assemble large groups of people like churches do, churches are the only group required to obtain a permit to operate," says attorney John Mauck, representing the churches.

These churches have gravitated to business spaces because, unlike traditional houses of worship, leaders are fundamentally seeking rooms that meet certain utilitarian criteria. Many municipal officials feel threatened, seeing a loss of tax revenues if a nonprofit occupies the space. And some business owners are afraid of the kinds of people the churches attract by providing social services. ...

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