Jan. 31 decision on whether sex offenders must move from halfway house near Aurora park

A Kane County judge will decide by Jan. 31 whether 19 registered sex offenders should be forced to move out of the Wayside Cross Ministries halfway house near downtown Aurora because it is within 500 feet of a children's playground and against the law.

Judge Kevin Busch heard arguments Tuesday regarding a temporary restraining order allowing the men to live in the supervised halfway house at 215 E. New York St.

Last month, Aurora city officials continued their push to have the men relocated under the state's sex offender registry laws, which ban sex offenders from living within 500 feet of certain uses, such as parks, schools and day cares.

City officials gave the men until Jan. 15 to move or face possible felony charges; the city has agreed to let them stay until the judge makes his ruling.

Adele Nicholas, one of two lawyers representing the men at Wayside, argued that under the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the city must pass a three-pronged test to show the men should be evicted.

The city's restrictions must not present a "substantial burden" on the exercise of religion, the city must show a "compelling governmental interest" and must choose the "least restrictive means" used by the government, Nicholas said.

The men attend Bible study and church services every day at the halfway-house. Forcing them to move could force them onto the streets because many homeless shelters cannot accept sex offenders, Nicholas said.

"They've chosen a religious life," she said.

"It's not simply going to church once a week."

Also, the city didn't push to have McCarty Park, 350 E. Galena Ave., classified as a playground until recently, Nicholas argued.

She said restrictions are in place - such as a law against loitering near the park and another law preventing sex offenders from going on park property - and the Wayside halfway house is a supervised facility that has a curfew.

County prosecutors have defined McCarty Park as a playground, used county maps to confirm it is less than 500 feet from Wayside.

The city in February 2019 determined the Wayside sex offenders were too close to the park. Wayside residents filed a federal lawsuit, but it was dismissed, with a judge saying the matter should first be reviewed at the circuit court level.

John Murphey, attorney for the city, said the splash pad at the center of McCarty Park draws families from around the area and is not protected by a fence and gate.

"The splashpad is the focal point. It's the draw. It's the attraction," Murphey said. "This is not where the state legislature intended to have convicted child sex offenders living by. It cannot be that this is a substantial burden on religion. What this has to do with is a consequence of criminal behavior."

Busch took the matter under advisement.

He will accept additional legal briefs from all attorneys this week and review case law.

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