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River of Life Kingdom Ministries v. Village of Hazel Crest

October 27, 2009


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 08 C 950-Joan B. Gottschall, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Williams, Circuit Judge


Before CUDAHY, MANION, and WILLIAMS, Circuit Judges.

River of Life Kingdom Minis-tries ("the Church") attempted to relocate its congregation from a crowded warehouse in Chicago Heights to its very own property-a dated fixer-upper in a blighted community in the Village of Hazel Crest. The problem was the Village had a zoning ordinance in place that designated the area a "Service Business District." The ordinance permitted a number of commercial uses for the property, but not religious services. The Church was aware of this ordinance, but it bought the property anyway hoping it would receive a special use permit, a form of relief, which, unbeknownst to the Church, was no longer available under the current zoning ordinance. So the Church sued the Village under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA") to allow it to relocate to the business district. Before the case could be decided on the merits, the Church filed a motion for preliminary injunction to allow it to relocate to the property in the interim. The district court denied the motion and the Church appealed. We conclude that the Church has only a slim chance of success on the merits and that any irreparable harm it may suffer does not significantly outweigh the potential harm to the Village. As a result, we affirm the district court's denial of the Church's motion for preliminary injunction.


River of Life Kingdom Ministries is a nonprofit religious organization with approximately sixty-seven members. Every Sunday, approximately thirty members of the Church assemble for worship in a Chicago Heights warehouse that it rents from a larger church. (About half of its members regularly attend services.) It also holds weekly Wednesday-night Bible study sessions and a women's ministry every third Saturday of the month. In addition to these services, the Church wanted to do more for its members and the community. Among its goals were promoting literacy, empowering communities, developing leaders, transforming economic conditions, and improving life, health, and safety for local citizens, all through the teaching and application of the principles of the word of God. River of Life Kingdom Ministries, Inc. Business Plan 1.1. For these purposes, its current location was unsuitable. It only had access to the warehouse for five to six hours a week, the facility was continually dirty and lacked heat and air conditioning, and, to top it off, it had to share the space with two other churches.

In the fall of 2006, the Church decided to purchase its own facility and focused its attention on the property at 16842 Park Avenue in the Village of Hazel Crest, a suburb twenty-five miles south of Chicago with a population near 15,000. The property is located in the oldest part of the Village (called Hazel Crest Proper), which is marred by vacant storefronts, run-down houses, and underperforming public schools. This part of the Village has been in serious decline since the 1990s. To the Church, this neighborhood in economic decline presented a valuable opportunity to implement its ministry goals and to contribute to neighborhood revitalization through a "grass roots, hands on approach . . . ." Among the activities planned to implement its goals were: Bible study for the residents, seminars, mentoring programs, tutorial services, and even a few small businesses to help spur the local economy.*fn1

By the time the Church began negotiations with the property owner on the terms of the sale, the Village had adopted a series of zoning ordinances and established a Tax Increment Financing ("TIF") plan. The Village's objective was to "provide an attractive commercial area that enhanced the regional image of Hazel Crest" and, particularly, to revitalize the run-down area near the Metra train station. Pursuant to this goal, Hazel Crest Proper (the "B-2 Service Business District") under the Village's zoning ordinance was designated a TIF district. This allowed the municipality to invest public funds in improvements to the area, including building new infra-structure and land acquisition. As the redevelopment kicked in, the additional tax revenue generated would then be used to repay the municipality. The zoning ordinance, which implemented the redevelopment plan, allowed general commercial and retail uses, gas stations, hotels, taverns, offices, and meeting halls to locate in the area as permitted uses. There is some indication, however, that the revitalization planned by the Village is still a few years and a few million dollars away from realization.*fn2

The Village's zoning regulations prompted the Church to include a contingency in the sales contract conditioning closing on its ability to obtain a special use permit. However, due to erroneous legal advice or mistaken reliance on an outdated 1998 ordinance, the Church later waived this contingency and purchased the property in October 2007. Soon after, the Church filed an application for special permission to use the property, which the Village denied. The Church also applied for a special-use exception which the Village Board of Trustees also denied.

On February 15, 2008, the Church filed a complaint and motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to prevent the Village from enforcing the zoning ordinance. The five-count complaint alleged that the ordinance violated the First Amendment, the Equal Protection clause, and the Substantial Burden and Equal Terms provisions of RLUIPA. The district court denied the temporary restraining order; however, while the motion for preliminary injunction was still pending before the court, the Village amended its ordinance to also exclude community centers, non-religious schools, meeting halls, art galleries, and recreational buildings, among other uses, from zone B-2. Both parties appear to concede that the strategy for this amendment was to bring the zoning ordinance into compliance with RLUIPA.

The district court allowed the Village to supplement the record with the amended ordinance, and it then denied the Church's motion for preliminary injunction.*fn3 It is from this order that the Church now appeals.


"[A] preliminary injunction is an extraordinary and drastic remedy, one that should not be granted unless the movant, by a clear showing, carries the burden of persuasion." Mazurek v. Armstrong, 520 U.S. 968, 972 (1997) (citation omitted). To obtain such relief, the moving party must first demonstrate that it has a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits, lacks an adequate remedy at law, and will suffer irreparable harm. See Girl Scouts of Manitou Council, Inc. v. Girl Scouts of U.S., Inc., 549 F.3d 1079, 1086 (7th Cir. 2008). The court must then balance, on a sliding scale, the irreparable harm to the moving party with the harm an injunction would cause to the opposing party. Id. The greater the likelihood of success, the less harm the moving party needs to show to obtain an injunction, and vice versa. Id. The court must also consider whether the public interest "will be harmed sufficiently that the injunction should be denied." Christian Legal Soc'y v. Walker, 453 F.3d 853, ...

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