In World Outreach Conference Center v. City of Chicago and Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church v. City of Peoria, United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit, Case Nos. 08-4167; 09-2142 (Decided December 30, 2009) a consolidated appeal, the cases involve the application of substantial burden in two specific fact patterns. In World Outreach, the church bought a former YMCA building from the City of Chicago seeking the use of overnight stay for the homeless. The World Outreach wanted to operate just like the YMCA and rent out single family rooms. The YMCA was not required to secure a special use permit before doing so. In 1999, the land was zoned as a community shopping district and the community center required a special use permit. World Outreach applied for a single room occupancy permit, and was denied the same because it did not have a special use permit. The City file showed that prior to the rezoning in 1999, the license was granted to the YMCA continuously without a special use permit. The City rezoned the property again in 2005 to light manufacturing business district for an alderman, who wanted the same for a political benefactor. No special use was permitted for a community center allowed in this particular zoning district. In 2005, the City sued World Outreach claiming the need for a special use permit and withdrew the suit in April 2006. The City did not address the licensing issue when it withdrew the case. In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit and FEMA offered to give World Outreach $750 per month for the room conditioned upon the licensing. The City refused to issue the license even though FEMA and the State of Illinois requested the same. In April 2006, the church sued and in August of that year, the City issued the license even though the church never saw it nor obtained a special use permit. The church then claimed damages. The trial court dismissed the case finding no substantial burden and finding that the church failed to exhaust its administrative remedies.
The Seventh Circuit notably held that “the principal is fine…but its application to this case perverse.” The reason why World Outreach could not seek a special land use permit was because of the manufacturing zoning designation. Indeed, the court found that this was essentially a malicious prosecution of religious organization by City officials. “The burden imposed on a small religious organization catering to the poor was substantial (for burden is relative to the weakness of the burdened), and there was no possible justification for it. The court reversed on the substantial burden issue.
With respect to Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, a historic preservation case, the court found no substantial burden because “whether a given burden is substantial depends on its magnitude in relation to the needs and resources of the religious organization in question.” The court found that the burden was modest by the community because landmarking the property for historic preservation did not render the building uninhabitable. The church could sell the building and use its proceeds to finance the construction of a new family life center on an adjacent vacant 50 x 80 foot lot, which the court concluded was an alternative site for the center. Therefore, summary judgment was affirmed.