City seeks to force Christian campground to demolish buildings

| Courtesy First Liberty

An Illinois city is seeking to force a Christian campground to demolish most of the buildings on its property damaged by flooding, a request the ministry believes is retaliation for holding a revival event during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Chicago District Camp Ground Association, Inc., also known as the Methodist Campground, filed a motion earlier this month to amend its pleadings in Cook County Circuit Court in response to a lawsuit filed by the City of Des Plaines. 

The campground, nestled on the banks of the Des Plaines River, was founded in the 1860s and, throughout its history, has hosted several revival events and other Christian gatherings.

At issue are the demands of officials with the city, which, according to the complaint, have subjected the campground to flood control operations in recent years.

Over the past 15 years, the campground has suffered from repeated flooding events, the intensity of which has exceeded previous flooding on the site. The ministry’s court filings contend that the flood was “no act of God” but rather a “result of novel flooding infrastructure owned and operated by the City.”

The motion states that the damage was caused by a flood prevention project called Levee 50, which became operational in 2008 with the knowledge that if two pumps of the levee are operated at the same time it could cause substantial flooding on the campground property.

The campground accuses the city of operating Levee 50 in a “manner that caused the Campground to suffer flood damage, including but not limited to operating more than one pump of Levee 50 simultaneously.”

The flooding has damaged around three-quarters of the buildings on the campground, several of which are over a century old. The city demanded that the facilities be demolished.

“By seeking to demolish over 75% of the Campground’s structures, the City’s enforcement proceeding substantially burdens the Campground’s religious exercise,” claimed the motion.

“Further, by seeking to impose the costs of demolition and daily fines dating back to March 8, 2021, the City seeks to financially ruin the Campground and take its Property, thereby decimating the Campground’s ability to engage in religious exercise.”

Earlier this year, the campground ministry agreed to be represented by the First Liberty Institute, a legal organization based in Texas that often handles First Amendment cases.

Ryan Gardner, an attorney with First Liberty, told The Christian Post that the court is scheduled to hold a hearing about the motion in November.

“The campground filed a motion to amend its pleadings so that it could assert a variety of constitutional, federal and Illinois state law claims and defenses against the City of Des Plaines,” said Gardner, who labeled the city’s actions “reprehensible.”

“Not only has the City flooded the Campground for years, but now it seeks to regulate the Campground out of existence with a lawsuit that is nothing more than retaliation against the campground for hosting a religious revival in defiance of the City’s unlawful attempt to stifle religious gatherings in 2020.”

The campground’s motion claims that the city has “not taken similar aggressive enforcement actions against similarly situated secular entities,” thus showing “religious animosity.”

Gardner said the “law is clear that government action motivated by religious hostility cannot stand and must be set aside.”

The Christian Post contacted the City of Des Plaines for comment on the case. However, the city’s media representatives did not return comment by press time.

Des Plaines Mayor Andrew Goczkowski told Journal & Topics that the city’s priority is safety. 

“It’s always been the city’s interest that the campground not be full of death traps,” Goczkowski said. “What if someone or children are in one of those buildings and it collapses? We have always been safety focused. Maybe they can play by the same rules as everyone else does.”

Although the campground and city used to have a working relationship, the campground’s motion states that its relationship with the town “soured” after hosting a 10-day religious tent revival in July and August of 2020.

“City officials invoked the COVID-19 pandemic and repeatedly pressured the
Campground to cancel or end its religious exercise, but the Campground stood firm —refusing to suppress prayer and worship on the Property,” the motion states.

“The Campground’s decision to invoke its First Amendment rights deeply angered
City officials, who also saw an opportunity to take this valuable property for itself. The City crafted a plan to retaliate against the Campground with the goal of shutting it down permanently through the façade of an enforcement action based on flood damage to the Campground’s structures — damage that the City itself had caused. City officials openly referred to the Campground’s First Amendment rights as “bull—” that could be disregarded.” 

This is not the first time Des Plaines has found controversy in its dealings with religious groups.

In 2013, city officials denied a zoning request by The Society of American Bosnians and Herzegovinians to convert an old building into a mosque.

The city was eventually found guilty of violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 and, in 2017, agreed to a settlement in which it paid $580,000.

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