The Illinois Baptist State Association will join two lawsuits involving religious liberty issues for the purpose of protecting Southern Baptist churches in the state. The IBSA Board of Directors voted to participate in the litigation in its fall meeting Sept. 10. One case involves zoning regulations that prohibit churches and church plants from being located in certain areas of a city. The other contests requirements that churches and religious institutions cover the cost of abortions for their employees. Both were approved by acclamation.
“Legislation in Illinois continues more and more to be an affront to our religious beliefs,” Executive Director Nate Adams told the Board prior to their vote. “These are just two examples. In the years that I’ve been with IBSA, I’ve never before asked you to join litigation.”
In the first, the Board authorized IBSA to engage in litigation in partnership with the Chicago-based law firm of Mauck & Baker that proactively challenges zoning restrictions in Illinois municipalities which do not currently allow religious institutions such as churches or church plants in certain zones of their cities. The restrictions are in violation of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA).
“We are increasingly seeing the need to assist churches in religious freedom issues such as RLUIPA,” Adams said. Zoning boards and city governments that once viewed churches favorably or at least neutrally now see churches as enemies, in part because as non-profits, they may take formerly taxable properties off the tax rolls.
Attorney John Mauck contacted Adams about participating in the suit as an association of churches rather than having a single church planter serve as a plaintiff. “John really believes we have good reason to approach it this way… When we prevail, it will spread from one community to the next.”
When asked by a board member if a church planter would have a better standing than IBSA, Adams said Mauck felt the Association was better positioned than a single church planter on his own. “Mauck & Baker believes such zoning is in violation of federal statute; what is needed is someone to bring it to [the city’s] attention.”
Immanuel Baptist Church in Chicago, pastored by Nathan Carter, filed suit in 2017 against the City of Chicago when it was blocked from purchasing the building it had been renting. The City sought to impose parking restrictions and refused to provide reasonable accommodations. In a partial victory, the city did not require parking at the church site that it would not have required of other businesses or tenants. At present, Immanuel has purchased the building, but the case has not been completely settled.
Almost a decade prior another IBSA church, Cross Church, pastored by Tim Rhodus, purchased a former Walmart building in the City of Carlinville. In 2008, after the church signed a purchase agreement for the property, the City rezoned the location to exclude religious use of commercial property. The City denied a request by the church to return the property to its former designation and the church was forced to file suit. After nearly a year, the church prevailed in court.
If IBSA is victorious in its suit, the city where the suit will be filed will serve as notice to other municipalities that similar attempts to place illegal restrictions on churches will not stand up in court.
In a second motion, the IBSA Board authorized the Association to engage in litigation in partnership with the Thomas More Society seeking an exemption for IBSA entities and member churches from the Illinois “Reproductive Health Act.” The Act, passed by the State Assembly at the end of the 2019 spring legislative session, requires employers to provide abortion coverage as part of their employee insurance plans. The purpose of the litigation is to ask for an exemption from the law based on religious beliefs.
A similar law requiring abortion coverage has been defeated in federal courts in cases brought by retailer Hobby Lobby and the Catholic religious order Little Sisters of the Poor. It is expected the Illinois law will go into effect at the renewal of churches’ insurance plans beginning at the new year.
“It’s not practical for every Baptist to church to gain an exemption from this law, but if IBSA gains an exemption from this law on behalf of its member churches, any member church of IBSA can claim an exemption from it,” Adams said.
While the litigation involving RLUIPA is important, Adams said, “this one [on abortion coverage] to me is much broader in scope in that IBSA might protect the religious freedom and convictions of its member churches.”
In both cases, Adams noted he consulted with attorneys who are members of IBSA churches. Each action the Board approved stated the “unrecovered cost of the litigation shall not exceed $5,000 without further action.”