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Religious Worship in Residential Homes: Is it an Accessory Use or Change of Use?


cases-headerIn many religious denominations, churches have their members form  bible studies or small groups where members meet on a weekly basis to form a community within the church.  These matters generally do not raise a concern for communities.  However, when a home church starts within a residence, and the owner attempts to convert the home into a church, the local community generally resist and tries to shut them down.  Such was the case in MAUM Meditation House of Truth v. Lake County, Illinois, where the Court was asked to decide if a 20 person meditation center in a residential home in Lake County, Illinois was a change of use (as suggested by the County) or an accessory use (as argued by the homeowner.)

MAUM Mediation House of Truth and Sheehyung Sung (collectively, “MAUM” or “Plaintiffs”) sought to operate a meditation center in Lake County, Illinois (“County” or “Defendant”). Specifically, MAUM’s proposed to use the property as a residence for Mr. Sung and two meditation guides, along with a two room meditation center. MAUM estimated that approximately twenty people per day, in groups of two to five persons, would use the facility. However, MAUM was prevented from proceeding when the County’s Chief Building Official insisted that Plaintiffs would need to obtain a “change of use” permit to operate inside Mr. Sung’s residence. In response, MAUM asserted that it did not need to comply with this provision of the building code or apply for a “change of use” permit because Plaintiffs did not intend to change the use of the premises. Further, MAUM contended that the meditation center was an “accessory use” to the residence, and thus Plaintiffs were in compliance with the building code without making any renovations. On January 21, 2014, and February 22, 2014, the Lake County Zoning Board of Appeals held public hearings on MAUM’s request for administrative appeal to reverse the administrative decision by the Chief Building Official. As a result of these hearings, the Zoning Board of Appeals issued a decision finding that:

(1) the proposed use of the property involved the establishment of a place of religious worship in an existing residence; (2) if the existing residence were to also contain the proposed place of religious worship, the building would contain two occupancies; (3) the existing residence would remain the principle use or purpose of the subject building; (4) the activities that would occur in the proposed place of worship would not be necessary for the existing residence to properly function and could otherwise exist apart from the existing residence; and (6) therefore, the proposed use did not qualify for an exemption for the section of the building code that applies to “mixed uses and occupancies.

The Zoning Board of Appeals therefore affirmed the Chief Building Official’s determination that the proposed use of a religious institution as a residence is a mixed use that does not qualify for an exemption. Further, the Zoning Board found that the particular mixed use constituted a “change of use” under the building code. As a result, MAUM would have to make a variety of renovations to the residence, totaling $200,000, in order to proceed with operation of its facility. MAUM alleged that the County’s insistence on these renovations constituted a substantial burden on MAUM’s free exercise of religion. Plaintiffs then filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. Specifically, the complaint alleged violation of the Free Exercise Clause, violation of the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“IRFRA”), a “class of one” violation of the Equal Protection clause, violation of the Due Process clause, and violation of free speech and free association. In response, Lake County filed a motion to dismiss.

Failure to Exhaust Administrative Remedies

Lake County first argued that MAUM’s complaint must be dismissed for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. Specifically, the County alleged that MAUM had state remedies available for compensation. According to the court, all final decisions of the Board of Appeals are subject to judicial review pursuant to the provisions of the Administrative Review Law. An aggrieved party may seek judicial review of an administrative decision without complying with the exhaustion of remedies doctrine where the agency cannot provide an adequate remedy or where it is patently futile to seek relief before the agency. Constantine v. Village of Glen Ellyn, 575 N.E.2d 1363 (2d Dist. 1991). Jurisdiction and venue for judicial review of administrative decisions is vested in the County Circuit Courts. Such courts will examine the zoning action de novo for arbitrariness as a matter of substantive due process under the six-part test set forth in LaSalle National Bank v. County of Cook, 145 N.E.2d 65 (1975).

Here, MAUM did not properly pursue their claims through the Administrative Review Law, and instead only appealed to the Zoning Board of Appeals. MAUM argued that it did not need to proceed through the Circuit Court of Lake County on appeal of the Zoning Board’s decision because the requirement to exhaust administrative remedies is inapplicable where there are fundamental rights, a suspect class, or a bona fide equal protection claim at issue. Forseth v. Village of Sussex, 199 F.3d 363, 371 (7th Cir. 2000). However, the court found that claims on which MAUM relied to avoid exhaustion of administrative remedies were insufficiently stated and that its equal protection claim was not bona fide. Therefore, MAUM was required to exhaust its administrative remedies by seeking a review of the Zoning Board of Appeals decision through the Circuit Court of Lake County.

Accessory use v. Change of Use. 

Count I of MAUM’s complaint alleged that by requiring MAUM to comply with a “change of use” permit and make various cost-prohibitive renovations to the property, the County substantially burdened MAUM’s free exercise of religion without a compelling government interest applied through the least restrictive means. In response, Lake County argued that MAUM had failed to adequately allege a free exercise violation. Free Exercise Clause analysis begins with an inquiry into whether the law at issue is neutral and generally applicable. Vision Church, United Methodist v. Village of Long Grove, 468 F.3d 975, 996 (7th Cir. 2006). The court noted that the International Building Code is neutral and generally applicable. The particular provision at issue states:

A room or space used for assembly purposes with an occupant load of less than 50 persons and accessory to another occupancy [in this case residential] shall be classified as a Group B occupancy or as part of that occupancy . . . . A room or space used for assembly purposes that is less than 750 square feet in area and is accessory to another occupancy shall be classified as a Group B occupancy or as part of that occupancy.

The court stated that “[n]othing in this section of the building code suggests that [the provision] applies exclusively to religious institutions.” See Civil Liberties for Urban Believers, Christ Center, Christian Covenant Outreach Church (“C.L.U.B.”) v. City of Chicago, 342 F.3d 752, 765 (7th Cir. 2003). To this point, MAUM argued that neutral laws of general applicability will be subject to strict scrutiny if it unduly burdens the free exercise of religion, Vision Church, 468 F.3d at 996, and (1) the government is allowed to make individualized assessments, or (2) a “hybrid rights” claim exists. Church of Lukumi Bablu Aye v. City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520, 537 (1993). Therefore, in MAUM’s view, Lake County impermissibly made an individualized assessment by interpreting the building code without having any guidelines for defining an “accessory use.” Further, MAUM asserts that its right to freedom of association is a companion right to free exercise that is also violated by Lake County’s actions.

The commentary of the International Building Code states that an “accessory” use must be functionally related to the primary use. Although MAUM argued that there was no evidence on which the court could rely in determining that Lake County consistently applied the Building Code’s commentary definition, the court noted that it was MAUM’s burden to allege sufficient facts from which the court could infer that MAUM’s rights had been violated. Instead, MAUM provided nothing to suggest that Lake County deviated from the “functionally related” definition of “accessory use” when it determined that a religious institution of the kind proposed by MAUM was not functionally related to a residence as to constitute an “accessory use” rather than a “change of use.” Therefore, the court found that MAUM had not adequately alleged that Lake County made an individualized assessment that would subject application of the building code to strict scrutiny. 

The court further held that MAUM’s “hybrid rights” claim was also insufficiently alleged, noting that “a plaintiff does not allege a hybrid rights claim entitled to strict scrutiny analysis merely by combining a free exercise claim with an utterly meritless claim of the violation of another fundamental right.” C.L.U.B., 342 F.2d at 765. In combination with its Free Exercise claim, MAUM asserted equal protection, free speech, free association, and due process claims.

Illinois RFRA Claim

Count II of MAUM’s complaint alleged a violation of the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“IRFRA”). Pursuant to IRFRA, “government may not substantially burden a person’s exercise, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless is demonstrates that application of the burden to the person (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest. While IRFRA does not define “substantial burden,” courts apply the same guidelines as they do for claims brought pursuant to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”). A substantial burden is “one that necessarily bears direct, primary, and fundamental responsibility for rendering religious exercise – including the use of real property for the purposes therefore within the regulated jurisdiction generally – effectively impracticable.” C.L.U.B., 342 F.3d at 761. The court held that MAUM had not sufficiently alleged a substantial burden, as it complained only of the financial implications of the County’s decision. The court noted that “[i]t is well established that there is no substantial burden placed on an individual’s free exercise of religion where a law or policy merely operates so as to make the practice of [the individual’s] religious beliefs more expensive.” Id. at 762 (citing Stuart Circle Parish v. Board of Zoning Appeals of Richmond, 946 F.Supp. 1225, 1237 (E.D. Va. 1996), quoting Braunfield v. Brown, 366 U.S. 599, 605 (1961)).

Equal Protection; class of one

In Count III, MAUM alleged a “class of one” violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Therefore, MAUM was required to show: “(1) that he has been intentionally treated differently from others similarly situated, and (2) that there is no rational basis for the difference in treatment.” Village of Willowbrook v. Olech, 528 U.S. 562, 564, (2000). However, MAUM presented no evidence indicating that it was intentionally treated any differently from any other individual or organization making a similar request. Nor did it sufficiently allege that Lake County’s reason for denying its decision lack rational basis. “In general, zoning ordinances imposing restrictions in use and occupation of private land, including distinguishing between residential and commercial and other uses, satisfy the rational basis test.” C.L.U.B,. 342, F.3d at 766 (citing Village of Euclid v. Amber Realty Co., 272 U.S. 365, 386-87 (1926)). Therefore, the court held that Lake County’s conclusion that the additional residents coming and going from the property necessitated permit requirements such as additional parking and handicap accessibility was related to the increase in traffic use, and was therefore had a rationally basis.

Due Process

Count IV alleged a violation of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Specifically, MAUM alleged that its proposed use was not a “change of use” under the building code, and therefore it was not required to obtain permission from Lake County to use the property in the manner proposed. Further, MAUM asserted that by requiring it to obtain a “change of use” permit, Lake County violated its due process rights. Lake County’s building code has a provision for appealing to the Zoning Board of Appeals for claims “that the true intent of this ordinance or the rules legally adopted there under has [sic] been incorrectly interpreted, the provisions of this code do not fully apply, or an equal or better form of construction is proposed.” The court noted that, initially, MAUM did not avail itself of this procedure, and has since appealed to the Zoning Board and been denied. Thus, MAUM has further due process available to it through the Administrative Law to appeal the Zoning Board of Appeals decision to the Circuit Court of Lake County. Accordingly, the court held that this Count also failed to state a claim because MAUM had not appealed the decision of the Zoning Board through the channels available to it, and therefore cannot adequately allege a claim for denial of due process.

Free Speech / Free Association

Finally, in Count V, MAUM alleged violations of free speech and free association under the First Amendment. However, the court concluded that this Count failed for the sale reason as MAUM’s Free Exercise claim. The court stated:

There is no indication that Lake County’s application and interpretation of the building code relates to MAUM’s message and it does not unduly burden MAUM’s exercise of these rights. MAUM’s argument that Lake County is preventing MAUM from exercising their speech and association rights is nonsensical. MAUM argues that Lake County’s application of the building code is contrary to the text and is therefore a content-based determination. MAUM misunderstands the meaning of content-neutral versus content-based regulation of speech or assembly.

The court in C.L.U.B explained that “to the extend that the [city ordinance] incidentally regulates speech or assembly within churches, such regulation is motivated not by any disagreement that [the County] might have with the message conveyed by the church’s speech or assembly, but rather such legitimate, practical considerations as the promotion of harmonious and efficient land use. In this respect, it is content neutral.” C.L.U.B., 342 F.3d at 765. Accordingly, the court found that MAUM had failed to state a claim for violations of its free speech and assembly rights. The court further concluded that Lake County’s motion to dismiss MAUM’s complaint should be granted, as MAUM did not adequately carry its burden of persuasion and make a clear showing that a preliminary injunction was appropriate.

If you have a question concerning the use of property as a worship facility, please call the professionals at Dalton & Tomich PLC to assist you with you matter.

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