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Small Church to Pursue Claims of Hostile Mayor

(CN) - A mayor's alleged hostility to tax-exempt churches may have kept a small congregation from renting a space in a suburb outside Chicago, a federal judge ruled.

Liberty Temple Church of Bolingbrook is a branch of Liberty Temple Full Gospel Church, located in Bolingbrook, Ill., with fewer than 100 members.

Since 2009, it has held services at a Holiday Inn in Bolingbrook, but the church began looking for a permanent location in August 2010.

When it found a suitable location, however, the landlord warned them to first clear their plan with Bolingbrook Mayor Roger Claar.

Claar allegedly told Marion Tucker, one of the church's ministers, that he "did not want any more churches in Bolingbrook" because "churches do not produce any tax revenue."

Liberty Temple continued its search and found another potential location. The new landlord also warned them that the mayor might not like the idea, but the church "decided to forgo another check-in with the mayor," according to the judgment.

The church says the building department erroneously denied their permit application because of an error on the city's zoning map. Bolingbrook allegedly told the church it needed a special-use permit, and that the site - an abandoned shopping mall with 420 parking spaces - had inadequate parking.

When the church tried to resolve the issue with the mayor, Claar allegedly replied that Bolingbrook had enough churches. Claar said he would consider letting the church stay if it promised to be gone in two years, then told them to "go look for another location," according to the complaint.

Five days later, Claar allegedly told the church's attorney that "the village would not back any zoning ordinance allowing the church to operate at this site."

U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber refused to grant Bolingbrook summary judgment against the church's lawsuit.

"Based on the village's own published map and zoning ordinance, a jury could reasonably find that the church reasonably believed a SUP was not legally needed," the April 12 decision states, abbreviating special-use permit.

"Moreover, based upon Mayor Claar's representation on February 28, 2011 to plaintiff's attorney, a jury could construe it as a definitive pre-emptive denial of any SUP plaintiff might have filed," Leinenweber added. "Therefore, plaintiff was not obligated to go bang its head against a wall and apply for a permit it was told it would never get."

"The facts entered by plaintiff regarding the mayor's alleged hostility, the refusal to accept a permit application for what was a properly zoned property, the demand for amounts of parking that were admittedly excessive all raise an inference that the village refused building permit applications without legitimate cause and so substantially burdened the plaintiff," the 14-page decision concludes.

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