Vineyard Christian Fellowship of Evanston, Illinois, has filed suit against the city of 75,000 people for what it calls punitive use of zoning laws to restrict religious freedom.

At issue is a long-vacant 36,000-square-foot office building bought by Vineyard in May 1997 for $1.1 million. The purchase ended a 10-year search for a permanent home for the 22-year-old church, one of Evanston's largest and most ethnically diverse congregations. The church asked the city for a zoning variance, which would allow the congregation to use the commercial office building not only for offices, counseling, and community outreach activities, but also for Sunday worship services.

Despite support for the request by the Evanston Zoning Board and Evanston Plan Commission, the City Council denied the variance. Vineyard executive pastor William Hanawalt says the request fell prey to "the politics of taxes." Increasingly, churches around the country are facing opposition to construction or expansion plans because many city officials wish to maximize property tax revenues (CT, April 28, 1997, p. 72).

Evanston is home to five colleges, universities, and seminaries and more than 70 houses of worship, all of which have tax-exempt status. The city has the highest property-tax rate in the state.

Those on the council who opposed the variance say the city has accommodated within its boundaries more than its fair share of nonprofit groups. The church argues that it is an unequal application of zoning laws to allow its space to be used for concerts, theatrical performances, and other "cultural uses," but not to be used by the same number of people for religious gatherings. Such zoning restricts religious speech and religious assembly, guaranteed by the Constitution, ...

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