Judge: Aurora can move sex offenders from halfway house that is too close to park

A Kane County judge on Friday denied a temporary restraining order against the city of Aurora's push to have 18 sex offenders evicted from the Wayside Cross Ministries halfway house because it is less than 500 feet from a city playground and park.

The move lifts any restrictions the city has on evicting the men; it was not immediately clear Friday what action, if any, the city planned to take.

Registered sex offenders, under state law, cannot live less than 500 feet from a park or playground. McCarty Park and its signature splash pad is within the 500-foot range from Wayside, which operates a halfway house, ministry and thrift shop at 215 E. New York St.

Attorneys for the men have argued that forcing them to move could infringe on their religious freedom to participate in Bible studies and other activities in the locked facility, which also has a curfew.

In a four-page written decision, Judge Kevin Busch said the government has a compelling interest to ensure child safety.

"Plaintiff's are subject to residency laws that lawfully curb their ability to live in a particular location. That is because they have lost a certain amount of liberty having committed serious criminal acts against children," read part of Busch's decision. "The residency law imposed a relatively small onus upon convicted sex offenders, and thus appears to satisfy the least restrictive alternative test."

Busch denied a request to have any possible city enforcement action delayed until Feb. 28, the next date the sides are due in court.

"Any restrictions on Aurora for enforcing the ordinance have been lifted with today's order," Busch told attorneys.

Aurora officials in spring 2019 notified Wayside officials their halfway house was too close to McCarty Park. A federal lawsuit was filed against the city, but judges ruled the issue should first be addressed at the circuit court level.

Richard Veenstra, attorney for the city of Aurora, said he needed to digest the ruling and confer with city officials before commenting.

A message left with Mayor Richard Irvin's office was not immediately returned. Paris Lewbel, spokesman for the Aurora Police Department, said the city was reviewing Busch's ruling.

"We will provide an update after we are able to thoroughly review it," Lewbel said.

Mark Weinberg, an attorney representing the sex offenders, said the judge's decision was disappointing and lawyers were prepared to appeal the case.

Weinberg said he was interested to see what the city wants to do next and noted attorneys for the men could still argue in court that finding lawful housing for registered sex offenders is a "substantial burden."

"Housing is very hard to come by. There a not a lot of places like Wayside. It's going to be very difficult for them to find housing," Weinberg said. "We don't think there's a compelling governmental interest because they can't go to a park under the law now and we think that protects children. We're prepared to appeal this all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court."

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