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empty Posted January 2007
Rev. Dr. Janette C. Wilson, Esq.
We Live In Our Faith, But Under The Law:
The Law Governs Where
Churches May Exist

Rev. Dr. Janette C. Wilson, Esq.
Chicago, IL

This is the first in a series of articles about the church and the law. Many pastors and officers in our churches believe that our churches operate outside of the legal constraints and rules that other members of society are forced to follow. Church pastors, officers and congregants are constantly in courts of justice seeking to enforce contracts, interpret bylaws, remove pastors, affirm property rights, or obtain damages resulting from personal injury obtained while on church owned property.

The following case highlights a matter that many pastors and church leaders face when they attempt to purchase or build a church facility in a community that has not had a church before. Many pastors and congregations are trying to expand church buildings or build a new church in communities that have not hosted churches before.

The Case of Civil Liberties for Urban Believers, Christ Center Christian Covenant Outreach Church vs. the City of Chicago 342 F3d.752, 2003 US App. 17046 is a case involving an association of churches who challenged the city of Chicago’s Zoning Ordinance and the legislative processes used for obtaining zoning appropriable on the basis that they were a violation of the churches’ rights to free exercise of religion, speech, and assembly under the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution. The original lawsuit was filed by an association of Chicago area churches ranging in size from 15-1500 congregants. The case presents factual information about five churches that were unsuccessful in obtaining zoning variations for property they intended to use as a church building.

The first member of the association presented to the court, Christ Center, could not find a building in any of the districts that were zoned for churches. The officers of Christ Center then contacted the Alderman who assisted them in locating a suitable building. The location was in an area that required the church to submit an application for a zoning variance. Chicago’s Zoning Board of Appeals denied the application. The church then located another building in a “manufacturing” district and was told by the City of Chicago Department of Planning that the department would oppose any zoning variance because the property was scheduled to be used for entertainment purposes. The church then found a third parcel of property in another area where it currently operates its worship services. Christ Center joined in this lawsuit claiming that it spent considerable moneys in attorneys’ fees, zoning application charges and other expense attempting to find suitable property.

Another plaintiff, Christian Bible Church had been meeting in a private home for two years, which the church membership eventually outgrew. Christian Bible then moved to a funeral home. The funeral home proved to be an administrative nightmare, thus the church began to seek a permanent meeting and worship site. Christian Bible filed an application for a special use permit for two separate locations, both were unsuccessful. In each case the alderman and the community organizations opposed the church’s special use application. The church tried unsuccessfully to sell the building it had purchased after being informed by the ward’s alderman that they would oppose any zoning variance for the church. The church claims it lost money as a result of the delay in obtaining a special use permit and the subsequent real estate tax exemption for the property. Christian Bible joined in the lawsuit to recover out of pocket expenses incurred in filing applications for special use and for purchasing a building it could not use as a church.

Two other plaintiffs, Mount Zion and Christian Covenant had similar experiences in seeking special use permits. In both cases the alderman and the community opposed the special use permits requested by the churches.

The city of Chicago’s zoning ordinance divides the city into R, B, C, and M zones for residential, business, commercial, and manufacturing uses. Churches are permitted uses as of right in all R zones, but are termed variations in the nature of special uses (“Special Use”) in all B zones and C1, C2, C3, and C5 districts. All special uses, religious and non religious, require approval by the Zoning Board of Appeals followed by a public hearing.  The fees for a Special Use approval approaches $5000.00. Before a church can locate in a C4 district or an M zone, the Chicago City Council must vote in favor of a Map amendment rezoning the targeted parcel of land. This same kind of ordinance exists in many cities around the United States. 

The congregations who filed this lawsuit sued on theory that the zoning ordinance discriminates against churches because it violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons act by placing a substantial burden on religious organizations.  The plaintiff churches also sued the city of Chicago stating that the zoning ordinance is unconstitutional because it violates the 1st Amendment to the Constitution that guarantees the free exercise of religion. The court ruled in favor of the city of Chicago on all counts. The question we must ask is what does this mean to churches?

Essentially, this case and many others suggest that pastors and church officers cannot just have a vision, but they must count the costs of implementing their vision. In the case of locating a church facility in a particular community there are some steps every congregation should initiate before a real estate deal is consummated, or construction begins:


  • Identify the site
  • Make sure the seller has clear unencumbered title to the site (do a title search to determine the liens that may exist against the property)
  • Check to see if the property was sold for non payment of property taxes
  • Check with your city’s Department of Planning or appropriate agency to see if there are any particular plans for the area
  • Determine the zoning for the site
  • Make sure the site is zoned for religious purposes

Many churches are unaware of the laws that impact the location of a church building.  Many pastors have a vision for church growth and expansion that requires the church to relocate its worship facility. The vision must comply with the zoning laws of the city whether the church is located.

Rev. Dr. Janette C. Wilson serves as the Project Manager for Crisis Management and School Climate for the Chicago Public Schools. Active in many civic organizations and a strong advocate for civil rights, Rev. Wilson also serves as volunteer Director of Legal affairs for Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and previously served as Executive Director of Operation PUSH. Ordained into the ministry by Rev. Clay Evans, pastor emeritus of Fellowship Baptist Church, she currently serves as the Associate Pastor for Family Ministry for the First Baptist Congregational United Church of Christ in Chicago. Rev. Dr. Wilson received a Juris Doctorate from John Marshall Law School and a Doctor of Ministry from United Theological Seminary.

Copyright© 2007Janette C. Wilson. All Rights Reserved. Used by permission

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