Religious freedom includes the right to make wine and beer. Illinois county board settles suit under Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act allowing a Catholic organization a brewery and winery. Court lambastes objectors’ religious animus.

Here are the facts from the court’s order. The Plaintiff Fraternité Notre Dame, Inc. (“Plaintiff” or “Fraternité”) is a Catholic religious order that was founded in 1971 and takes the Most Blessed Virgin Mary as its Model and Protectress. The parties in the case stipulated that “[i]t is an essential part of the Fraternité Notre Dame’s faith and mission to help persons who are suffering in their heart or in their body and are in need,” and “Fraternité Notre Dame does so without any distinction of race, class, gender or creed, as the Christ has requested in His Gospel and as the religious orders have always done along the centuries.”

The religious order owns 95 acres in McHenry County, Illinois (the “Property”).

In 2005, Plaintiff was granted a conditional use permit to construct on the Property a place of worship, including a monastery, a church, a seminary, convent, retreat center, a bakery, a printing press, and a cemetery. In 2014, Plaintiff applied for an amendment to the 2005 conditional use permit to add approximately 30 acres of property, to allow for the building of a barn-like structure for winemaking, beer brewing, and a commercial kitchen, and to allow for the building and operation of a boarding school, a nursing home with hospice services, and a gift shop (“Petition”). The McHenry County Zoning Board of Appeals voted in favor of the Petition. The McHenry County Board voted to deny the Petition.

When the McHenry County Board voted to deny the Petition, the religious organization sued claiming constitutional violations and protection under the equal terms and substantial burden provisions of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”).

The RLUIPA count was important because:

RLUIPA contains a specific provision relating to land use as a religious exercise. The statute provides that no government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on a religious assembly or institution, unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person, assembly, or institution is in furtherance of a compelling government interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest. 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc. When there has been a denial of a religious institution’s building application, courts appropriately speak of government action that directly coerces the religious institution to change its behavior.

After much negotiation, public hearing and comment the Court approved a consent decree under which the Plaintiff and County agreed that:

(1) the McHenry County Board’s denial of the Petition imposed a substantial burden on Plaintiff’s religious exercise by preventing Plaintiff’s members from performing the charitable works for which God calls upon them to perform and thereby preventing Plaintiff from fulfilling its core religious mission; (2) the McHenry County Board’s denial of the Petition was not the least restrictive means of furthering any compelling government interest within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(a); (3) the interests articulated by the McHenry County Board could have been served by an action less restrictive than wholesale denial of the Petition; and (4) the McHenry County Board’s denial of the Petition, therefore, violated the substantial burden provision of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

You can read the complaint the catholic organization had filed here.

You can read the court’s opinion regarding the consent decree here. The opinion is filled with discussions about the public animus and invective from open meeting and hearing the court held in advance of approving the consent decree. It includes notes such as:

The historical religious bigotry Plaintiff has been subjected to provides a painful backdrop to this case. Plaintiff, its members, and the Property have been subjected to repeated acts of religious bigotry. The Property has been vandalized and desecrated in the most vile ways. Plaintiff’s members have been threatened with lynching. And they have been placed in peril. For example, Plaintiff’s vehicles have been vandalized in ways that affected the operation of the vehicles, including the loosening of lug nuts and the severing of brake fluid lines. Because of these criminal acts, Plaintiff installed fencing and cameras to protect its members and the Property.

In assessing the provisions and public comment regarding the activities of brewing and wine-making, the court took on the public comments against the Plaintiff’s alcohol making ambitions:

Several speakers noted the various good works that Plaintiff and its members have accomplished in other locations in Northern Illinois. As to the Property, several neighbors voiced opposition and several voiced support. Some speakers spoke about their concerns regarding the Consent Decree’s provision that would allow the consumption of alcohol made on-site at the Property, but these speakers failed to address that just down the road, the clubhouse at the local golf course serves alcohol from its fully-stocked bar, and now had video gambling. A related concern was that the location of the school on the same site as a brewery and winery would apparently tempt the children to imbibe. But if parents’ liquor cabinets can be locked, Plaintiff can certainly find reasonable ways to secure the alcohol on the Property. Regardless, this concern is not a legitimate basis to infringe on Plaintiff’s rights. Experience tells us that children and fire are a bad combination. But no reasonable local government would enact a fire code prohibiting menorahs in homes with children.

Strangely, there  were many complaints that operating a winery and brewery would not be consistent with the agricultural nature of the area. Of course, to operate the winery and brewery, Plaintiff would be planting and growing crops for those operations, which is inherently agricultural.

The court, in accordance with the parties desires, but against public sentiment, found that McHenry County’s actions in denying the permit, part of which included the right to have a brewery and a winery on the premises, was a violation of the religious organization’s rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and ordered the County to approve the permit to allow construction of a barn and the activities of a brewery and a winery.

Ashley Brandt

Hi there! I’m happy you’re here. My name is Ashley Brandt and I’m an attorney in Chicago representing clients in the Food and Beverage, Advertising, Media, and Real Estate industries. A while back I kept getting calls and questions from industry professionals and attorneys looking for advice and information on a fun and unique area of law that I’m lucky enough to practice in. These calls represented a serious lack of, and need for, some answers, news, and information on the legal aspects of marketing and media. I've got this deep seeded belief that information should be readily available and that the greatest benefit from the information age is open access to knowledge... so ... this blog seemed like the best way to accomplish that. I enjoy being an attorney and it’s given me some amazing opportunities, wonderful experiences, and an appreciation and love for this work. I live in Chicago and work at an exceptional law firm, Goldstein & McClintock, with some truly brilliant people. Feel free to contact me at any time with any issues, comments, concerns… frankly, after reading this far, I hope you take the time to at least let me know what you think about the blog and how I can make it a better resource.

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