CHICAGO, June 15 (Chigago Times)--Judging by the petitions and fervent testimony of its citizens, the Chicago suburb of Palos Heights has developed a new passion for recreation.

The city is doing everything it can, even invoking its eminent domain rights, to take over a soon-to-be-vacated church building. City councilors and residents insist that whatever the cost and trouble involved, the urgent need for recreation at that particular site justifies this all-out pursuit.

Of course, one could forgive members of the Al Salam Mosque Foundation if they are a little skeptical.

After all, it was not until mosque officials informed the city that they had signed a $2.1 million contract to buy the church building that Palos Heights caught the recreation bug. For months before that, the church had been on the market without any apparent interest from the city.

Al Salam Mosque Foundation, meanwhile would like to use the building for roughly the purposes it serves now, as the Reformed Church of Palos Heights: worship and worship-related education.

Just as the Reformed Church is looking for a larger home, the mosque has outgrown its current building on the Southwest Side of Chicago and is looking for a suitable site it can afford, convenient to its membership.

Of course, if evidence were to emerge that the officials and residents of Palos Heights are trying to block the sale of the church because they don't want a mosque on the site, Al Salam could walk away with the building and a hefty court settlement in about the time it takes a judge to say "discrimination."

But those who want the city to step in and take the building away from the mosque say that it has nothing to do with the new congregation's ethnicity or devotion to Islam. It is all about recreation, they maintain.

And that is what could make this a wonderful test case for the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which Gov. Jim Edgar signed into law in December 1998.

The Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act seeks to readjust the balance between worshipers and the power of government, in an era when government officials often find it inconvenient or downright distasteful to accommodate religious practice and have enormous power to stomp it out.

In substance, it is nearly identical to its federal predecessor, struck down in 1997 on the grounds that it usurped states' rights, and several state versions that have popped up since then. It boils down to two simple provisions:

Government may not burden a person's exercise of religion unless it has a compelling reason to do so. And even if it has a compelling reason, government must prove that what it is doing is the least restrictive way to achieve its goal.

Discussion of the act has often centered on exotic cases, such as prisoners who want to smoke peyote as part of a religious ritual.

But in fact, it is mundane little property and zoning disputes that are proving to be the major battlefield between government and organized religion in America, pitting the nation's hypothetical respect for worship against its real-life urges to grab power and money wherever possible.

So far, nobody in the Al Salam-Palos Heights discussion has brought up the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Mosque representatives continue to operate under the assumption that if they answer everybody's questions and jump through all the hoops, the city will do the right thing.

Nobody on either side wants even to whisper the word "litigation," and the cost and acrimony involved would not be good for anyone.

If it came to that, however, the dispute would be fascinating.

Does it burden the religious practice of the mosque's members to block their purchase of a building for worship? On the city's side, is recreation a compelling government interest?

Perhaps most pertinently in this case, is condemning the building or forcing the mosque to relinquish its contract the least intrusive way for Palos Heights to get the recreation it craves?

Since the act took effect, there has been no definitive court interpretation of the law. The state Supreme Court is currently considering Chicago Heights vs. Living Word Outreach Full Gospel Church and Ministries, in which that city refused to zone a storefront for worship on the grounds that its tax base would be undermined. But that case was tried before the act became law, and the act's arguments were tacked onto the appeal only at the last minute.

The Palos Heights situation would give justices a much better running start at the new law, allowing them to weigh the act's constitutional merits through a case in which everybody knew the rules beforehand.

It would also be a good test of the courts which, after all, are much more accustomed to balancing financial and property interests than they are to comparing the importance of religious practices and government programs.

Finally, it would be a good test of civic values. Politicians and constituents voiced support for this additional religious protection in the abstract, but where will they stand when push comes to shove?

And how well can Islam, or Christianity for that matter, stand up against that most American of religions, recreation?

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