Zoning, worship often at odds

Members of a Hindu group trying to build a temple and school near Grayslake hoped neighbors would accept the religious center as a place of peace, but it has sparked more contention than harmony.

Some residents say the proposal isn't compatible with their single-family homes in unincorporated Lake County and are trying to block it.

"It's not our intention to create any kind of problem for anyone," said Ashok Bhatia, a spokesman for the Chinmaya Mission. "It's our intention to be good neighbors and at the same time have opportunities available to people of all faiths."

The disagreement between the Chinmaya Mission--made up of about 100 north suburban families--and some of their closest neighbors underscores problems that can erupt over the location of houses of worship.

Across Chicago and the suburbs, mosques, temples, synagogues and churches often are embroiled in zoning disputes--some ending up in courtrooms.

The Muslim Community Center in Morton Grove recently reached a tentative agreement with the village, permitting it to build a mosque next to an Islamic school. If the agreement stands, community center officials say they will drop a $5 million lawsuit against the village, but a group that opposes the mosque insists it will pursue the matter in federal court.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case brought by a coalition of churches, Civil Liberties for Urban Believers. The group challenged the constitutionality of Chicago's zoning laws, arguing churches were illegally restricted from where they could locate.

In the north suburbs two Korean congregations are fighting it out in federal court. Vision United Methodist Church sued over Long Grove's refusal to approve construction of a church on the grounds it was too large for the lot. And in Northbrook, Petra Presbyterian Church sued for the right to occupy space in an industrial park in what officials say is a violation of the town's zoning laws.

All cases cite the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, a federal statute prohibiting municipalities from restricting religious freedom without a compelling government interest.

Experts say those affected are primarily minority faiths or new denominations that haven't staked out territory.

"The state has decided that the church shouldn't pay taxes, so lots of cities decide, `We've got better uses. We want something else,'" said Douglas Laycock, a professor at the University of Texas in Austin who specializes in religious zoning matters. "But unfortunately they're saying that in respect to constitutionality. When you try to run churches out of town it's not the same as when you run bars out of town or department stores."

Attorney John Mauck consults churches on zoning issues. The Evanston resident has been behind more than 50 lawsuits filed by congregations.

"Yes, I have wanted to spread the good news," he said. "The best way to do that is to fight for religious freedom for all people."

When B'Nai Maccabim, a Messianic synagogue in Highland Park announced two years ago that it would occupy a building in a Green Oaks office complex, officials balked at the unconventional use of the space. But after Mauck wrote a letter explaining the federal law to the village, B'Nai Maccabim was welcomed in the community.

The synagogue since has converted the interior into a sanctuary, providing what Rabbi Barry Budoff calls a "worshipful experience."

"Nontraditional buildings at this point in our history are probably the way to go for smaller congregations," Budoff said.

But some of the smaller churches fall victim to religious zoning restrictions and often do not survive, legal experts say.

"Little churches are hit the hardest," Mauck said. "They don't have the money to carry on if they have to keep meeting in a hotel room."

Controversies over religious land use are nothing new. When the Bahai congregation applied in 1921 for permits to build its first Western Hemisphere temple in Wilmette, residents called the proposed structure "an enemy to Christianity."

A committee appointed by the village tried to impose a deadline for completion, but plans were approved, and the temple opened more than 30 years later.

"It's an example to other suburbs that beautiful houses of worship are a resource to a community," said Tim Frenzer, village attorney. "It's not only very important to the Bahai faith ... it's a landmark for the community and something the whole community takes pride in."

Meanwhile, members of the Chinmaya Mission hope Grayslake residents will come to accept their temple and school.

Neighbors and members of the temple are addressing the Lake County Zoning Board of Appeals in a series of public hearings set to resume July 1.

"All religious places have certain rituals and certain protocols and a certain sense of sanctity attached to them," Bhatia said. "We'd like to have that because it's important."