The Fraternite of Notre Dame earlier this month filed a six-count lawsuit alleging that the County Board discriminated against it as a religious institution when it voted in September against granting it a permit to add a boarding school, nursing home, winery, brewery and gift shop to its 95 acres at 10002 Harmony Hill Road, south of Marengo and Union.
The lawsuit alleges that the board’s decision, based in large part on the conclusion that the proposed use is an inappropriate fit for a rural agricultural area, is discriminatory because the board has granted permission to build for other uses. It singles out the nearby Marengo Ridge Golf Course, the county-owned Valley Hi Nursing Home west of Woodstock, as well as two public schools, a private Lutheran school, and several churches with gift shops.
“You can’t say no to [the Fraternite] when you’ve said yes to everyone else,” Fraternite attorney Jim Geoly said.
The County Board first granted the Fraternite a permit in 2005 to build a chapel, convent, monastery and bakery on the property. Neighbors have alleged the Fraternite has not been a good neighbor when it comes to work hours and construction, and have argued that adding a school, hospice and brewery would make the property a worse fit for the rural area.
More than 800 people signed a petition opposing the expansion, and the Coral Township Board opposed it as well.
The Fraternite’s request after months of testimony passed the Zoning Board of Appeals on a 4-3 vote, which was one vote shy of the five needed for a recommendation to approve. It then went on to the County Board, which soundly rejected the request on a 20-3 vote. While board members praised the Fraternite and its work helping the poor and downtrodden, they concluded the expansion request was inconsistent with the county’s land-use plan and development ordinances.
However, the lawsuit states the County Board had granted such permits for similar uses in similar areas, and alleges that the rejection of the Fraternite’s permit violates the equal protection clauses of the U.S. and Illinois Constitutions, as well as the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and the state Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The lawsuit asks the federal court to rule that the Fraternite can build its requested expansion with the variances to size and height it had requested, and compensate it for attorney’s fees.
Bad blood between the Fraternite and the neighbors have simmered in the decade since the retreat was first built. Neighbors have chafed at allegations of religious and racial bigotry by the Fraternite and its supporters – most of the order’s works are done in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago. And the Fraternite has been the victim of vandalism in past years, most notably in 2005 when its statues of Jesus and Mary were defaced with spray paint.
Fraternite of Notre Dame was founded in 1977 by French Bishop Jean Marie, who claims he received divine inspiration from the Virgin Mary to help the disadvantaged. The order identifies as Catholic, but is not recognized by the Vatican.