Village of Johnsburg violated rights of local religious group, federal lawsuit claims

A local religious group seeking to build a church in Johnsburg now is suing the village in federal court, claiming the municipality denied the church a permit hearing and blocked the group from obtaining a special use permit.

Light House Church of McHenry filed a lawsuit against the village March 12 in the U.S. District Court in Rockford. In a 66-page federal complaint, the church accused the village of Johnsburg of violating rights under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, as well as the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act, in addition to stifling the church's First Amendment rights.

Light House Church is seeking money damages and an injunction that would bar the village from enforcing a new zoning code that disqualifies the church as a permissible use on the property in question.

“We are in receipt of the litigation and are disappointed that the church chose to pursue this matter in court rather than through the regular hearing process before the Planning and Zoning Commission,” Johnsburg Village Administrator Claudette Sofiakis said in an email Thursday.

The situation began June 24, when Light House Church filed a development application and the corresponding $200 application fee to build a church at 2918 Johnsburg Road, according to the lawsuit.

The church began holding public services in March 2005 but has since outgrown its current meeting space in a leased building at 2742 Barney Court, McHenry, the Rev. Neil Lindwall wrote in a letter to the village last year.

Light House hoped to build a 12,000-square-foot church on the Johnsburg property as a permanent meeting space, Lindwall wrote.

At the time Light House filed its application, churches qualified for conditional use in four separate zoning districts under the village’s zoning code. The church subsequently requested a permit hearing to take place Aug. 13 at a special zoning commission meeting, but the hearing never occurred, according to the civil complaint.

On July 24, Sofiakis responded to an email from the church’s attorney and said the application had not been placed on the agenda for the Aug. 13 meeting. Furthermore, potential zoning amendments could bar use of the property as a church, she said, according to the lawsuit.

“The pastor responded that the church wanted to remain on the agenda for the commission’s meeting on Aug. 13, and the church did not want a refund of its application fee,” attorney James Wright wrote in the civil complaint.

Days later, Light House Church received a letter from the village. Enclosed was a refund of the $200 application fee.

Wright did not respond to a voicemail seeking additional comment.

Throughout a series of meetings between Aug. 13 and Jan. 7, village officials successfully eliminated a portion of the city code that required a three-fourths favorable vote by the Village Board to overrule a negative recommendation by the commission.

This was substantial, according to the lawsuit, since the special zoning commission previously had voted twice against eliminating conditional uses for churches in business zoning districts.

“[The village of Johnsburg] has deprived and continues to deprive [Light House] of its rights to free exercise of religion ... by refusing to grant the church a hearing on its application, and by thereafter amending its zoning code and altering the code’s voting requirements,” Wright said in the civil complaint.

Sofiakis did not respond to an email seeking additional comment about the allegations. As of Friday, the village did not appear to have an attorney on file.

The case has been continued to May 12.