Church, Home of Gospel Music, Sues Illinois

CHICAGO (CN) – A century-old South Side Baptist church designed by Adler & Sullivan, famous for its contributions to Gospel music, claims Illinois gave a school $1 million that was supposed to go to the church, to rebuild a burned building that provided secular social services. Pilgrim Baptist Church claims the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity gave the state grant, inappropriately, to the Loop Lab School.

     Pilgrim Baptist Church “is one of Chicago’s most architecturally and socially significant buildings,” according to the complaint in Cook County Court. It was “designed as a synagogue in 1890 by the great Chicago school architects Adler and Sullivan. In 1921 it became Pilgrim Baptist Church, and quickly grew to become one of the largest and most influential African-American congregations in the country. It is known as the birthplace of Gospel music.”
     Mahalia Jackson, Albertina Walker, Aretha Franklin and others have sung at the church, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke there in the 1960s. The church in the South Side’s Bronzeville neighborhood was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and was designated a Chicago Landmark in 1981. Thomas A. Dorsey – not the Swing bandleader, but a blues pianist once known as “Georgia Tom” and later known as the Father of Gospel Music – was the church’s music director for decades.
     The church was damaged by a fire caused by “careless roofing subcontractors” in January 2006, the complaint states. The fire destroyed “the historic church building” and the Administration Building next door.
     At the time of the fire, the church was renting part of the Administration Building to “a private organization called the Loop Lab School,” which “was not affiliated with the church. In fact, at the time of the fire, Loop Lab School was in arrests to Church of over $77,000 in unpaid rent. This amount was never paid,” according to the complaint.
     Three days after the fire, “then-Governor Rod Blagojevich publicly promised $1 million to help rebuild Pilgrim. The money was to be used for the secular purpose of rebuilding the Administration Building to house community social programs open to the public regardless of religious affiliation.”
     But the church says, “the DCEO gave the $1 million grant to the Loop Lab School in early 2007.” The church adds that “the Loop Lab School improperly used that money to purchase a property at 318 W. Adams Street which was never used for school purposes. The Illinois Attorney General’s office has brought legal proceedings in an attempt to recover money from the Loop Lab School.
     “The Illinois Auditor General later investigated the DCEO grant to Loop Lab School. The investigation resulted in a 152-page report, dated June 2009, which heavily criticized those involved in issuing the grant to Loop Lab School,” the complaint states. It claims the Auditor General also criticized DCEO’s “unwarranted ‘[d]elays’ in eventually attempting to recover the money from Loop Lab School.” (Brackets in complaint.)
     The governor’s office said the money was mistakenly given to the Loop Lab School in “a bureaucratic mistake,” according to the complaint.
     The church says that, relying promises that it would get the $1 million grant, it hired a contractor to demolish its Administration Building, which cost more than $65,000.
     The complaint adds: “A lawsuit was filed by the atheist Rob Sherman in July 2008 claiming that the grant to rebuild the Administration Building was unconstitutional. According to the report of the Illinois Auditor General, after that lawsuit was filed, the Illinois State ‘Comptroller … decided to hold the payment of the $1 million grant to the Church,’ apparently pending a resolution on the merits of Sherman’s lawsuit.”
     In September 2009, the DCEO told the church that the award had been terminated due to insufficient funds, though it continues to fund “other entities,” the church claims.
     Pilgrim Baptist Church seeks promissory estoppel, damages and costs. It is represented by Michael Pope with McDermott, Will & Emery.

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