ADL Letter to Alton, Illinois Mayor Brant Walker Regarding Religious Freedom Concerns

  • November 14, 2019

In a letter to the Mayor of Alton, Illinois, ADL expresses its concern regarding a proposed zoning amendment which would potential violate state and federal law.

November 13, 2019


Mayor Brant Walker

Alton City Hall

301 East 3rd Street

Alton, IL 62002


RE: Proposed Zoning Amendment Regarding Temporary Shelters


Dear Mayor Walker,


On behalf of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), we write to caution the City of Alton about enacting and enforcing the proposed zoning amendment regarding temporary shelters against local religious institutions.  ADL does not represent the churches impacted. Rather, our interest is one of promoting religious freedom within the communities we serve.


Founded over a century ago, ADL is the nation’s leading civil rights organization fighting hatred, bigotry, discrimination and anti-Semitism.  To that end, we work to oppose government interference, regulation, and entanglement with religion.  While ADL values strict adherence to the separation of Church and State embodied in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, we equally support and lift up the Free Exercise Clause.  We are ardent advocates for religious freedom of all Americans.


In the Spring of 2019, a group of local churches approached the City of Alton to create together overnight warming centers for individuals experiencing homelessness when the temperature drops below twenty degrees.  Instead of working collaboratively, the City has chosen to amend the Alton City Code to restrict “temporary shelters” to specific commercial zoning districts and to only allow such shelters if a special use permit is granted within that commercial zone.  Since, there are very few, if any, churches actually located in one of these specific commercial zones, the City is making clear its intent to restrict the churches from exercising their protected religious beliefs.


We raise serious concerns under both State and Federal law. If the City chooses to move forward with the proposed zoning amendment, we believe it would likely violate the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). RFRA was enacted to prevent state and local government officials from substantially burdening religious practices without justifying such action with a compelling interest and offering the least restrictive means of accomplishing that interest. The law specifically mandates that, “[government may not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person (i) is in furtherance of a compelling government interest and (ii) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest.” 735 ILCS 35/15.


This standard known as “strict scrutiny” is the most stringent constitutional constraint under which the government rarely prevails.  The restrictive nature of the proposed zoning ordinance plainly places a substantial  burden on the churches ability  to freely exercise their religion. Yet, to date the City has not offered a compelling government interest for the proposed change to the zoning ordinance, let alone demonstrated that the proposal would be the least restrictive means of accomplishing such an interest.


The proposed zoning amendment also raises significant concerns under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc, et seq. RLUIPA, which like  RFRA, prohibits implementation of a land use regulation that substantially burdens a house of worship’s religious exercise unless the burden is justified by a compelling state interest and is the least restrictive means of achieving that interest.   Similar to the RFRA, we believe the City has not demonstrated that it can meet the strict scrutiny standard that would apply in this matter.


The City of Alton has a moral and legal responsibility to protect its most vulnerable citizens and the free exercise of religion within its community. We encourage the Mayor and City Council to reconsider the proposed zoning amendment and to lay over the resolution for further discussion of the above issues. We stand ready to assist in any way appropriate to create a collaborative solution to the matter at hand.


Karen J.  Aroesty

Regional Director

ADL Heartland


cc: Alton City Council

Aaron Vickar, Buckingham Asset Management, Chair, Regional Advisory Board

Jennifer Schwesig, Esq, Armstrong Teasdale, LLP, Vice Chair