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, the suit says.

LOCAL SOLIDARITY: Earlier this year, the Illinois Department of Revenue made the lost tax revenues a moot point when it granted Vineyard's request for a property-tax exemption on the office building. But the church must still rent Evanston Township High School's auditorium-for $100,000 a year-for its Sunday services. The city is asking for a state hearing to appeal the church's exemption.

A surprising amalgam of Evanston nonprofit organizations has come together in support of the Vineyard. In July, 1,200 people demonstrated solidarity with Vineyard at a gathering sponsored by a citizen's coalition of Evanston churches, unions, and community groups.

At the August 24 city council meeting, Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish leaders presented 600 signed postcards to council members, protesting the city's use of taxpayer dollars to fight a church.

Hanawalt sent a letter to every council member saying, "If you'll just let us worship in our building, we'll drop our claim for damages." The Vineyard's suit asks for $500,000 in compensatory damages to help recoup the protracted legal fees. Hanawalt says, "We would rather spend the Lord's money on ministries to the poor and to our community's youth. But we will not back down in the face of the city's opposition to our right to worship in our own building."

Alderman Art Newman accuses the church of using "strong-arm tactics" to win the zoning fight. Evanston Mayor Lorraine Morton is reticent to speak until the litigation has been resolved. "Let's just say that it is the responsibility of the city council to act in the best interest of all the citizens of Evanston," Morton says. "Clearly, we feel the decision we made met that criteria [SIC]."

Christian zoning attorney John W. Mauck of Chicago says the use of zoning laws to restrict churches is a growing national trend. "There are many reasons cities oppose churches, and a lot of them are unspoken because they would be politically incorrect." Mauck says municipalities often view churches as only slightly more desirable than landfills.

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