Medill Reports: Muslim civil rights group among those suspicious of DuPage zoning proposal

Concerned citizens and civil rights groups are calling a proposed zoning amendment in DuPage County a potentially unconstitutional infringement on religious freedom.

The amendment, proposed in August by the County Zoning Board, would prohibit any place of worship—or any civic, cultural, social or fraternal organization—from building on unincorporated residential land in the County. Approximately 90 percent of available land in DuPage is unincorporated.

The DuPage County Zoning Board held the second of three public hearings on the controversial proposal Monday. Lois Easley, who opposes the measure, said nearly two dozen residents spoke against the proposal during the three-hour meeting. Apparently no resident spoke in favor of it.

DuPage officials who support the law say there is not enough infrastructure in unincorporated areas to support new places of assembly. Housing developments, would not be barred under the proposed ordinance. County officials say they considered a similar amendment to the zoning ordinance in 2006 but the measure was rejected by the board.

But the timing of the current proposal seems suspicious to some since several Muslim groups have filed recent requests for building and land-use permits in DuPage.

“Regardless of the purpose of the ordinance, the effect is clearly going to burden Islamic organizations the most,” Kevin Vodak, the staff attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said.

said the Council, a leading Muslim civil rights group, would potentially file a lawsuit against the County if the zoning amendment becomes law.

Already pending is a lawsuit against the county over a request by the Irshad Learning Center’s to build a Muslim community center in Naperville.

Meanwhile, another group, the Muslim Educational Cultural Center of America, has a request pending before the board to build a facility in unincorporated Willowbrook. A hearing on their request was held by the zoning board in August.

If the zoning amendment becomes law, the constitutionality of the law might ultimately be decided by the courts.

Chicago area zoning attorney George Maurides said local governments, by law, have the right to enact unique zoning codes.  Private land owners or those who have been rejected from receiving a permit could sue, arguing the code is unconstitutional, Maurides said.

County officials argue that the amendment is fair.

“I don’t see the ordinance as discriminatory in its present form, and I don’t want any discriminatory legislature coming to my committee,” said County Board member Tony Michelassi.

Michelassi is the chairperson of the County Development Committee, which is the next public body after the zoning board required to consider the measure and determine whether it should move to the full county board.

The Zoning Board has scheduled a third and final public hearing on the measure for Nov. 15.

Michelassi said he welcomes residential debate and a review by the Board to the proposed amendment.

“I think it would be in the best spirit of legislature to amend and mold it into what the public would find appropriate,” Michelassi said.

Michelassi, who represents Naperville, supported the Irshad Learning Center’s petition to build in Naperville.

Vodak, the lawyer for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he would be surprised if Michelassi supports the zoning code amendment because it violates religious liberties and seems to target Muslims.

“Muslims are kind of the new kids on the block in DuPage and they are going to face the highest burden in having to go to commercial areas, buy more expensive land, create larger developments and be completely away from their neighbors,” Vodak said.

Islam is not the only religion with members opposed to the amendment.  Dan Easley, a West Chicago resident who attended both public hearings, said his church community, Church of the Resurrection, gathers in a temporary worship space in unincorporated DuPage County and has considered building a permanent facility.

“Personally, I look at this as tremendously limiting our opportunity in the future of obtaining suitable facilities somewhere, whether it would be building a building or obtaining a building,” Easley said.

A grassroots organization, United Power for Action and Justice, is organizing a petition against the DuPage County proposal, gathering signatures from residents.