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Judge turns sarcastic – rips Chicago’s attack on ministry


Judge turns sarcastic – rips Chicago’s attack on ministry
Decides zoning fight in favor of church that took over YMCA building

A federal appeals court judge has turned sarcastic to blast the city of Chicago’s zoning “incompetencies” – or perhaps corruption – in a case over the use of a former YMCA building on the South Side.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to the trial court for a determination of what damages may be due to the World Outreach Conference Center.

The case began a decade ago when the ministry, under Pamela Blossom, took over the former YMCA building, which included conference rooms, a swimming pool and several upper stories that held 168 rooms to rent out to individuals.

The city demanded that the church obtain a special-use permit before it could get a license to rent out the rooms, even though that had not been required of the previous owner. The city’s demand violated a city ordinance stipulating use permissions not be changed by the ownership of a facility.

“A change in ownership as such has no effect on a building’s status as a legal nonconforming use,” wrote Judge Richard Posner of the 7th Circuit. “And the city’s zoning department had no reason to think that the change of ownership in this case would significantly change the use to which the building was put.

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“World Outreach wasn’t intending to tear the building down, consolidate the 168 single rooms into a dozen luxury suites, or fill the swimming pool with golden carp; it intended to use the building as the YMCA had used it,” he wrote.

The new demand by the city, he concluded, likely was because of “incompetence by the city’s zoning department, a desire of the alderman (Anthony A. Beale) of the Ninth ward, in which the building is located, that the building be owned either by Chicago State University or Provider Realty Corporation, or fumbles on the part of World Outreach.”

“Alderman Beale may have pressured the city’s zoning department to prevent World Outreach from using the building as it intended even though the intended use would be virtually identical to that of its predecessor the YMCA,” Posner wrote.

In its demand that the church buy a special-use permit from the city, Posner wrote: “The department should have known – maybe did know, since the YMCA’s prior use of the facility was noted for its records – that World Outreach didn’t need a Special Use Permit, because its intended use of the building as a legal nonconforming use – basically it was continuing the YMCA’s use of the building, only under a different name.”

The city escalated the dispute by suing the center in a case Posner determined was “frivolous” then ramped up the pressure further by moving the case to federal court.

It ultimately took two years before the city relented and agreed to follow its own rules and procedures, selling the center the permit it needed to operate.

Posner wrote that the lower court was on “sound ground” in ruling the city owed the center reimbursement for litigation expenses.

“A frivolous suit aimed at preventing a religious organization from using its only facility – a suit that must have distracted the leadership of the organization, that imposed substantial attorneys’ fees on the organization, and that seems to have been part of a concerted effort to prevent it from using its sole facility to serve the religious objectives of the organization (to provide, as a religious duty, facilities for religious activities and observances and living facilities for homeless and other needy people) – cannot be thought to have imposed a merely insubstantial burden on the organization,” he said.

Posner noted that even the demands from the city for “architectural drawings of every floor and the entire building” were odd, “for the zoning department must have had this information already, dating from the YMCA’s ownership of the building.”

“The change in ownership had not changed the size or shape or design of the building.”

He noted issues that remain, because there has yet to be a trial in the dispute: “The animosity of the alderman,” the fact that building code violations had accumulated for the YMCA “yet its licenses to operate … had always been issued,” and the “mysterious, and possibly malevolent, insistence by the city, contrary to its own ordinance, that World Outreach required a Special Use Permit.

“A reasonable jury could find, especially by comparison with how the city had treated the YMCA’s ownership and virtually identical management … of the building, that the city had arbitrarily imposed a substantial burden on World Outreach’s religious activities.

“We can understand the judge’s desire to end a litigation that will soon have lasted as long as the Trojan War, but we do not think that the end is yet in sight,” he wrote, citing the center’s possible loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in income it might have accessed renting rooms to displaced Hurricane Katrina victims, but couldn’t because the city wouldn’t allow that.

The Alliance Defending Freedom, which is defending World Outreach, said it was the second time the appeals court ruled against the city.

“Though World Outreach intended to use the building for similar services as the YMCA, the city rezoned the building as a manufacturing zone and then filed a lawsuit aimed at preventing World Outreach from carrying on charitable and religious activities there,” ADF said.

“Using a city’s zoning restrictions to shut down ongoing religious and community services just because the city wants to use a building for other purposes is clearly illegal,” said Mauck & Baker partner John Mauck, one of more than 2,500 private attorneys allied with Alliance Defending Freedom and lead counsel for World Outreach.

“The 7th Circuit’s opinion will allow a jury to see how a city that claims to care for victims of gang violence and the homeless actually operates when these goals conflict with the corrupt practices of aldermen.”

“The court was right to recognize the city’s actions and arguments as ‘mysterious’ and ‘possibly malevolent,’” said ADF Senior Counsel Joseph Infranco.

ADF noted the jury in federal district court now also will be asked to “consider the role of Alderman Anthony Beale in preventing World Outreach’s ministries from using the building and if the city should be liable for damages.”


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