CAIR-Chicago Supports Appeal of Jewish School Denied Zoning Relief

On May 6, 2014, CAIR-Chicago filed an Amicus Curiae brief in support of an appeal filed by the Joan Dachs Yaakov Elementary School – Yeshivas Tiferes Tzvi (“Joan Dachs”), based on the City of Evanston’s refusal to allow the school to re-develop vacant land for its religious and educational plans. Joan Dachs has appealed Circuit Court of Cook County Judge Mary Anne Mason’s decision granting judgment in favor of Evanston on the school’s claims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

Joan Dachs is a private religious elementary school dedicated to providing its students an education in the Orthodox Jewish tradition coupled with a secular curriculum approved by the Chicago Board of Education. After determining that the facility for its boys’ school on the north side of Chicago was insufficient, Joan Dachs searched for alternative locations for six (6) years, and ultimately contracted to purchase property in the southwest corner of Evanston at 222 Hartrey Street in late 2006. This property appeared ideal for the school, as a Christian church is adjacent to the property, and the existing boys’ school was less than three (3) miles away.

At the time of Joan Dachs’ purchase, the Hartrey property was zoned for light industry and manufacturing, an outdated designation when the land became surrounded by a shopping mall, a church, and a residential neighborhood. Prior to the purchase, the owner unsuccessfully attempted to secure industrial buyers for approximately five (5) years, and was planning on demolishing the building on the property if Joan Dachs did not make the purchase.

Despite Evanston approving a number of rezoning requests to convert former industrial properties, Joan Dachs faced staunch opposition from municipal officials to any request for zoning relief on the Hartrey property. As Joan Dachs proved at trial, when first apprised of the property purchase and plans to operate a religious school, Alderman Ann Rainey stated: “Keep your Jewish school on California. You’ll get a zoning change over my dead body.” Zoning Administrator Bill Dunkley rejected Joan Dachs’ attempt to secure a special use permit as a “religious institution,” and responded to a proposed unique use permit with anti-Semitic references to “un-kosher logic” and “parting the Red Sea.” In 2009, Evanston ultimately denied Joan Dachs’ application to amend the industrial zoning designation to commercial, which would have authorized Joan Dachs to operate its religious school on the property.

After extensive litigation, on April 30, 2013, Judge Mason granted judgment in favor of Evanston on Joan Dachs’ claim under RLUIPA that Evanston discriminated against the institution based on religious affiliation. Prior to this decision, Judge Mason also found that Joan Dachs could not prove that Evanston treated the institution on less than equal terms than secular institutions. Joan Dachs filed an appeal of both of these rulings to the Illinois Appellate Court.

Based on his experience in representing Muslim institutions faced with zoning denials by governmental officials, CAIR-Chicago’s Litigation Director Kevin Vodak filed an Amicus Curiae (“friend of the court”) brief to address errors in Judge Mason’s decisions. These decisions misinterpret the various standards that federal courts have used when applying RLUIPA to zoning denials, thereby imposing higher requirements on Joan Dachs to prove its claims than the statute establishes. While Judge Mason relied heavily on Evanston’s contention that the zoning change was needed to preserve tax revenues, CAIR-Chicago’s brief argues that such a defense was unjustified under RLUIPA, when Joan Dachs’ evidence revealed that Evanston discriminated against the institution based on its religious affiliation.

“Given the barriers that the Muslim community continually faces when attempting to establish religious and educational institutions, we are very happy to support an Orthodox Jewish organization’s litigation of the same issues,” said Litigation Director Vodak. “CAIR-Chicago seeks to ensure that our religious freedom laws are properly enforced in a fair and consistent manner.”

Both Evanston and Joan Dachs will file additional briefs regarding the appeal, the Illinois Appellate Court will conduct an oral argument, and ultimately the court will decide whether to overturn Judge Mason’s rulings.