An order of Catholic nuns has filed a federal lawsuit against McHenry County for rejecting their proposal to expand facilities at their Northern Illinois Convent, and the case could have farther-reaching repercussions, as the country continues to grapple with questions over the rights of religious adherents and their organizations.
The Fraternite Notre Dame submitted a petition for an amendment to a preexisting permit in Sept. 2014. The proposal included plans for a brewery, winery, gift shop, nursing home, and other charitable venues to be built in the primarily rural area in Chicago's far northwest suburbs.
In 2005, the Fraternite originally purchased 65 acres in McHenry County for $2.5 million for the purpose of furthering their mission to be an “Instrument of peace, comprehension and unity with everyone.” Upon the purchase, the order obtained a conditional use permit to develop the agricultural zoning district into a church, seminary, convent, bakery and retreat center, among other things.
Their proposal in 2014 only required an amendment to the permit, but residents in the surrounding areas objected and the McHenry County Board shut it down.
Opponents on the board voiced concerns that the location was not zoned to be developed for commercial use and that the expansion would create traffic issues and harm the environment. After hearing the arguments, the Zoning Board of Appeals barely passed the petition with a 4-3 vote, but the County Board had the final word and denied the expansion plans with a 20-3 vote.
Attorneys for the order claimed the nuns are facing religious discrimination from the opposition and have been victim to harassment in the past. The facilities were reportedly vandalized in 2005 with profanities and the message “go away” spray-painted on Mary’s face with black paint. The claim alleged that the County violated the order's rights under the U.S. Constitution and the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
“The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) has and continues to have a large impact on the planning world and municipal land use law," said attorney and RLUIPA blogger Karla Chaffee. "The RLUIPA provides extra-constitutional protections to religious land use applicants and institutionalized persons and grants prevailing plaintiffs the right to recover their attorneys’ fees.
“The Fraternite Notre Dame case is one of the many interesting cases we report on ... because it presents a question as to the scope of what constitutes religious exercise under federal law," Chaffee said.
According to the lawsuit, McHenry County has approved several similar projects to operate in agricultural areas, including a nursing home, two church wineries, three schools and four religious gift shops. The oddity of opposition in the county, the claim stated, provides evidence of discrimination and violation of federal and Illinois religious discrimination laws.
“These cases are very fact specific and whether or not a land use applicant has been 'substantially burdened' under RLUIPA often has to do with the specific needs of a religious institution and how fairly a court believes the institution was treated,” said Chaffee.