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Christian Group Wins Ruling on Katrina Suit

(CN) - The 7th Circuit revived a lawsuit accusing Chicago of blocking a Christian ministry from housing Hurricane Katrina victims, but upheld the dismissal of a similar religious harassment claim against Peoria, Ill.

Judge Richard Posner said the Chicago case stemmed from an alderman's bias toward a developer, not religious discrimination. "It has nothing to do with religion, but so what?" he wrote.

The World Outreach Conference Center had accused Chicago of refusing to grant it the licenses needed to operate a community center in Roseland, on Chicago's south side. As a result, the city blocked World Outreach from housing Hurricane Katrina victims in 2005, despite pleas from federal agencies urging Chicago to issue the requisite permits.

World Outreach argued that it didn't need a special use permit to operate the community center, because it had bought the building from the YMCA, which rented the building's 168 apartments for 80 years without being bothered by the city.

The land was rezoned as a community shopping district in 1999, but neither the YMCA nor World Outreach needed a special use permit to rent rooms. Their use of the building qualified as "legal nonconforming use."

World Outreach still had to apply for a single-room-occupancy license, which isn't tied to the land.

"But a Chicago alderman named Beale, irate that the building had been sold to World Outreach rather than to a developer who was one of his financial backers, had proposed ... that the property on which the building sits be rezoned as a Limited Manufacturing Business Park District," Posner explained.

Because a community center is not allowed in a limited manufacturing district, the city sued World Outreach, claiming it had to obtain a special use permit.

Though the suit was voluntarily dismissed, Chicago still refused to issue the required license.

World Outreach sued in April 2006, claiming the city's frivolous suit blocked it from sheltering the homeless and needy. A year later, the city issued the license, even though the group still didn't have a special use permit.

"The picture painted by the complaint is of malicious prosecution of a religious organization by City officials," Posner wrote.

He allowed World Outreach to sue for violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and for discrimination, but stressed that "[r]eligion didn't enter the picture."

"The discrimination was in favor of a developer on the basis of his financial relationship to a politician," Posner wrote.

In the second case, Peoria refused to let a Lutheran church tear down a designated landmark to make room for a Family Life Center.

Judge Posner said the burden imposed on the Trinity Lutheran Evangelical Church was "modest," because the church could simply build the center on an empty lot on its campus.

"We imagine that the real purpose of this litigation is to extract a commitment from the City to allow Trinity to build the family-life center on the empty lot," he wrote, "and so viewed the suit has succeeded."

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