Judge rules religious order can expand Illinois operations

March 8, 2020 GMT

MARENGO, Ill. (AP) — A traditional Catholic religious order received the go-ahead to build a boarding school, nursing home, gift shop, brewery and winery in northern Illinois despite objections from some local officials and residents.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Iain Johnston approved a consent decree between McHenry County’s state’s attorney and Fraternite Notre Dame Inc., despite the county board’s refusal to even hold a hearing on the agreement, the Chicago Tribune reported. In his ruling Monday, Johnston criticized the board for “shirking a fundamental duty.”

The decision ends several years of litigation over the order’s planned expansion of its operation in Marengo, 60 miles (100 kilometers) northwest of Chicago

The order sued in 2015, alleging that by blocking the expansion, McHenry County was violating the U.S. Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally negotiated the agreement with the order to resolve the suit.

Fraternite Notre Dame, established in 1977 in France, is not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, which the order alleged was the basis of some complaints against it. The order consists of nuns and priests and has a Mother House in Chicago.

Jack Franks, the county board’s chairman, said the board rejected the suggested development before he took office on the advice of the previous state’s attorney. Franks said he did not think the opposition stemmed from religious bigotry, but from concerns about whether the development was appropriate for a rural area.

However, Kenneally had told the board that the county would likely lose at trial after a public hearing where experts testified that the development wouldn’t hurt traffic or water quality.

“The state’s attorney (office) made the mess,” Franks said. “Let them clean up the mess.”

Johnston’s ruling means the order can now construct a barnlike winery and brewery and a three-story boarding school for up to 80 kindergarten through high school students, with separate dorms for boys and girls.

The nuns agreed to keep at least 60% of the McHenry County site undeveloped. The business would be limited to four 26-foot (8-meter) box trucks or smaller. Any construction must be finished within five years.

As part of the consent decree, the religious order will delay seeking permission for a nursing home for at least three years, Fraternite attorney Joan Ahn said.

“Generally, they’re happy with the results,” Ahn said of the nuns. “They’re looking forward to moving past the lawsuit and going back to their core religious mission.”