A federal district court in Illinois recently held that a City’s application of its parking requirements to a church placed a substantial burden on religious exercise under the
Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) where the City
applied their requirements on a case-by-case basis. Immanuel Baptist
Church v. City of Chicago.

Since 2011, a church, located in a planned
development within the City, operated with an occupancy of 146 people. The City Code required that buildings used for religious assembly have
one off-street parking spot for every eight seats of occupancy, which meant the
church was required to have 19 parking spots, which it did not have. In 2016, the church sought
to purchase two nearby properties, and its lender requested proof of zoning
compliance regarding the off-street parking requirement. For the next several
years, City zoning officials and the
church had extensive conversations to try to resolve the discrepancy, including options for a church exemption from the
parking requirements. In 2018, the church met the off-street
parking requirements when it leased a nearby parking lot. In June 2019, the City approved
changes to the church’s planned development approvals to eliminate the parking
requirement. Ultimately, the church was able to purchase part of one of the two
properties it originally sought to develop.

The church subsequently sued the City alleging the City’s parking requirement
violated RLUIPA’s equal term and substantial burden provisions as well as the
U.S. Constitution. After preliminarily resolving two of the three issues, the only issue before the court at trial was whether the City’s parking
regulations placed a substantial burden on religious exercise under RLUIPA.

Under RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision:

No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution, unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person, assembly, or institution–

(A) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and

(B) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

The district court stated that a substantial burden under RLUIPA can result when a government has procedures in place that permit it to make “individualized assessments” of the proposed uses of religious property. The City argued that RLUIPA did not apply in this case because it did not engage in an “individual assessment. However, the district court rejected the City’s argument finding that RLUIPA did apply to the City’s application of its parking requirements for religious institutions. Here, the court found that the extensive conversations
between the City and church about avoiding the parking regulations were evidence
the City’s process was not applied mechanically but, instead, with a high degree of
discretion. Because the City was making individualized assessments
concerning its parking requirements on a discretionary, case-by-case basis, and the burden on the church was significant, the court held the parking requirements placed a substantial burden on the church under RLUIPA. The district court awarded the church $14,590.00 in damages.

Post Authored by Daniel Lev, Ancel Glink