A federal district court in Illinois recently denied a church’s preliminary injunction motion and dismissed its suit alleging that a zoning ordinance violates RLUIPA and the Equal Protection Clause. In all of its zoning districts, the Village of Homewood allows places of worship only as special uses. Because non-religious assembly uses are permitted by right in some districts, the Word Seed Church claimed that the ordinance substantially restricts its ability to obtain property in Homewood. Although the Church never sought the required special use permit, it filed suit alleging that the ordinance violates the equal terms, unreasonable limitations, and substantial burden provisions of RLUIPA and the Equal Protection Clause. The Church also moved for a preliminary injunction against enforcement.
Before entertaining the merits of the motion, the court quickly dismissed the suit for lack of standing. Although the Church alleged some specific injuries, they were not traceable to the Village of Homewood. Rather, they pertained to a third party that was under contract to sell the Church a property. The third party refused to include a zoning contingency requested by the Church and ultimately backed out of the contract, causing the Church financial losses. While the Church established that it could not apply for a special use permit until it had a right of ownership and that it could not purchase property without a zoning contingency, the court found this chain to the Village too attenuated.
Still, the Church contended that, under RLUIPA’s broad definition of religious exercise, its mere intent to use property for religious exercise supported a claim. Noting that standing requirements are grounded in Article III of the Constitution, not in Congress’ grant of a statutory right to seek redress for intangible harm, the court was quick to dismiss this argument.
The court continued that, even if the Church had standing, it would not have granted a preliminary injunction. Improperly applying requirements for a public entity seeking an injunction under RLUIPA, the Church argued that it need not establish that it is likely to suffer irreparable harm without a preliminary injunction. The court concluded, however, that as a private entity the Church should have demonstrated an irreparable harm yet failed to do so. The Church did not explain how the ordinance affects its religious exercise or how the unpurchased property is important to it. Had the Church’s speculative injury not already resulted in dismissal for lack of standing, that shortcoming would have blocked any path to a preliminary injunction.
Word Seed Church v. Village of Homewood, 2020 WL 6719030 (N.D. Ill. Nov. 16, 2020).