Naperville Sun: Civil liberty advocates laud new rules for religious facilities

This article was originally published on October 11th, 2011.

In the end, there were no more changes made to the guidelines that now will determine how religious organizations and other groups find new places to call home in unincorporated DuPage County.

The County Board Tuesday gave unanimous thumbs-up to ordinance revisions that over the past few years were crafted, criticized and reworked in an attempt to streamline the process of locating places of assembly in residential districts. The new set of rules applies to clubs, lodges and other organizations as well as religious uses, but about 90 percent of such requests that come to the county are from faith groups.

Some of those who have been critical of provisions in the new rules welcomed the passage of the code amendments, though they cautioned that the parameters remain imperfect.

Maryam Judar, a community lawyer for the Citizen Advocacy Center, noted that the county’s increasingly diverse residents mean the new measures are especially warranted. However, she said her organization has concerns that the stipulations by their nature may apply unevenly.

“Presumably the impact will be mostly on new places of worship,” Judar said.

According to Elmhurst attorney Mark Daniel, who has represented Islamic organizations in several recent efforts to establish worship sites in the county, there may be situations where the new regulations run counter to guarantees in the federal Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act. Daniel cited specifically the act’s prohibition of “substantial burdens on religious exercise” and its protection of the freedom of religious assembly.

He questioned the requirement that all organizations have entry and exit directly onto major arterial roads, reiterating earlier suggestions that collector streets also be considered viable access routes for assembly places. He said neither Wheaton Bible Church nor the recently approved Muslim Educational Cultural Center of America on 91st Street near Willowbrook would comply with that aspect of the new rules.

In addition, Daniel took issue with the measure’s ban on groups setting up shop in structures that previously functioned as single-family homes, surmising that if a house has sat vacant, perhaps it no longer meets that definition.

“Single-family homes, barns, storage sheds, industrial buildings, they’ve all been converted for religious uses,” Daniel said.

County officials responded to the criticisms by pointing out that the process of applying for exemptions from the rules, or variances, remains an option available to everyone.

Jim Zay, a representative from District 6, has dealt with contentious requests in his area. He praised the changes.

“I think when people talk about places of assembly, we’re talking about property rights,” Zay said.

Board member Jeff Redick, who last week reviewed the amendments as part of a final once-over by the development committee, said they balance the rights of all parties involved.

Tony Michelassi, who represents Naperville and the rest of District 5, commended the efforts of the officials.

“I think it is a progressive move towards regulating all places of assembly in an equitable way,” Michelassi said, adding that few people walk to their houses of worship anymore. “We all commute to church now.”

As the west suburban region’s population has risen and grown more diverse in recent years, county and municipal planners have addressed a variety of requests for the conditional use permits needed by religious organizations and other groups.

In the last couple of years, local permit applications from Islamic organizations have drawn especially large crowds. Supporters and opponents flocked to DuPage meetings in late 2009 that were centered on an effort to establish the Irshad Learning Center on a three-acre site on 75th Street east of Naper Boulevard in unincorporated Naperville. When the request was turned down by a divided County Board, the applicants filed a federal appeal that remains in court. A spokeswoman for the Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which is arguing the suit on Irshad’s behalf, said this week that the case may move into the deposition phase in November.

Proposals from non-Muslims also attract interest from neighboring homeowners, though the turnout at those meetings has been considerably smaller. The DuPage County Zoning Board of Appeals is scheduled to take up yet another request Thursday evening. That permit would clear the way for a convent in Lombard, southeast of North Avenue and Swift Road, to be home to 10 Catholic nuns.