A church will be allowed to press its claim that a southwest suburban Cook County government owes it some money for allegedly discriminating against the congregation and torpedoing the church’s deal in place to buy land for a new sanctuary.
On Feb. 21, U.S. District Judge Sara L. Ellis issued an opinion and order clearing the way for Christian Assembly Rios De Agua Viva, a primarily Hispanic church with roughly 250 members, to proceed with a small portion of its federal discrimination lawsuit against the city of Burbank, saying some parts of the matter need to go before a jury.
In looking for a new facility almost a decade ago, the church, which meets weekly at 6132 S. Kedzie Ave., Chicago, settled on suburban Burbank, where its pastor, Luis Ruiz, and at least 12 other member families lived. According to court documents, a three-and-half-year search ended in August 2010 when the church signed a contract to buy four acres at 8100 S. Parkside Ave., Burbank, a lot that included four buildings totaling about 27,000 square feet. The property would accommodate a 428-seat sanctuary.
The plot, formerly the Old Barn restaurant, had been vacant for almost two years after owners filed for bankruptcy. Though the complete market value was $2.26 million in October 2010, the church negotiated a $900,000 purchase price with the bankruptcy estate. Under city zoning rules at the time, churches needed to obtain special use permits to locate in the class C commercial zoning district sought by Christian Assembly Rios.
Building Commissioner Frank Kainrath recommended the city zoning commission deny the permit, saying the site was “the last large C district left in Burbank for development” and “it is not in the best interest of the community due to the loss of the historic use and tax monies.”
The city was in the process of amending its zoning ordinance, and Mayor Harry Klein spoke with Ruiz about his desire to require all C district uses to generate property tax. The church wanted the city to consider its permit application in a timely fashion to satisfy its purchase contract obligations, but the November 2010 zoning board meeting was canceled, as often is the case, because of a conflict with Election Day.
In December, the City Council amended the zoning ordinance, effectively prohibiting new churches in C districts. The church initiated legal actions and ultimately the sale fell apart in February 2011 as the estate trustee could not deliver clear title at agreed-upon pricing owing to accumulated taxes and liens. The church did get all but $200 of its earnest money back, though it amassed legal fees and spent $6,000 on a survey it was to be credited for at closing. On Nov. 13, 2015, it bought an existing church building at 9000 S. Ridgeland Ave., Oak Lawn.
In the lawsuit at hand, the church accused the city of violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, as well as the the U.S. Constitution’s First and 14th amendments and various state laws.
Judge Ellis’ analysis focused on the legal standard of substantial burden. She wrote the church provided a “litany of facts” without “explanation as to how the facts fit into the legal framework for a substantial burden claim based on undue delay, uncertainty, and expense.”
Ellis granted Burbank summary judgment on its substantial burden and free exercise claim, but also said the city failed to produce evidence that gave it justification for forcing churches to seek special use permits while not doing so for secular institutions under seemingly equal circumstances. That failure led to her granting partial summary judgment to the church for its RLUIPA equal terms claim. And, although the amended zoning ordinance does not have the same flaw, Ellis said her finding regarding the prior ordinance entitles the church to damages.
She said setting the value of the damages owed to the church, however, is a matter better left to a jury.
The judge also indicated the jury could rule on the church’s equal protection claim.
“Neither side has properly addressed the claim at the summary judgment stage,” Ellis wrote, “and the court refuses to research the law and construct the parties’ arguments for them.”
The church was represented by the firm of Mauck & Baker, of Chicago, and by the Liberty Justice Center, of Chicago.
The city of Burbank was defended by attorneys with the firms of Rosenthal, Murphey, Coblentz & Donahue, and of Louis F. Cainkar Ltd., each of Chicago.