Leaders of an Evanston, Illinois, congregation are "cautiously optimistic" that their five-year zoning battle is nearing an end. On March 31 a federal judge ruled that the city's zoning ordinance violates the church's constitutional rights to free assembly, free speech, and equal protection.

In 1997 the 700-member Evanston Vineyard Christian Fellowship bought a mostly vacant office building, planning to convert it to a church and use it for worship. Evanston's zoning commission recommended approving a special use permit, but the city council declined.

Under Evanston's zoning code, membership associations—both secular and religious—and cultural institutions (theaters and concert halls) are allowed in office zones, but "houses of worship" are not. This meant the Vineyard could use the building for office space, meetings, or even concerts with religious content. But worship services were forbidden.

When negotiations with the city stalled, the church filed suit in Illinois Northern District Court. U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer ruled that Evanston zoned on the basis of religion, not purely on land use (as the city claimed). The Vineyard seeks to recover its legal costs and some of the estimated $500,000 in rental fees it has paid in the last five years.

After the ruling, the Vineyard held a Good Friday worship service at the building. The church "won't hold regular Sunday services yet," said Mark Sargis, the church's attorney. Sargis said the church would wait for a final settlement.

Roger Crum, Evanston's city manager, said the city might change its zoning ordinance to address a "technical inconsistency" that treats religious groups differently than nonreligious groups. He also said the city had no initial plans to appeal. ...

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