City Limits Number of Students at Church-Run School

A court ruled that this restriction does not violate the First Amendment.

Church Law and Tax 1991-05-01 Recent Developments


An Illinois state appeals court ruled that a city could limit the number of children attending a church-operated elementary school. A Lutheran church established an elementary school in 1983, receiving a special use permit from the city subject to an enrollment cap of 60 students. The permit was modified in 1987 to permit up to 75 students. The school soon exceeded this limit, and the church sought another modification allowing unlimited enrollment. The city rejected this request, and the church filed a lawsuit claiming that the city’s action violated parents’ first amendment right to freely exercise their religion. A trial court rejected the church’s argument, but did raise the enrollment limit to 105 students. The church appealed this ruling to a state appeals court, which affirmed the trial court’s decision. The court noted that the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom would be violated only if the church (or parents) could demonstrate that maintaining the school on the current premises was a “fundamental tenet” of its religion rather than a mere “preference.” The court emphasized that the church had “put forth no more than the abstract notion that this particular school is fundamental to its religious tenets let alone fundamental at this particular location.” The court acknowledged that the church would incur additional costs in relocating the school to a site where more students could be accommodated, but this fact alone did not demonstrate a violation of the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom. In conclusion, the court observed that “the first amendment does not require the city to make all land or even the cheapest or most beautiful land available to churches,” since “a church has no constitutional right to be free from reasonable zoning regulation nor does a church have a constitutional right to build its house of worship where it pleases.” Bethel Lutheran Church v. Morton, 559 N.E.2d 533 (Ill. App. 1990).

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