Home News Conservative group files lawsuit over Evanston reparations program

Conservative group files lawsuit over Evanston reparations program

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The future of Evanston’s groundbreaking reparations program could be in doubt after a conservative nonprofit organization filed a federal lawsuit accusing the initiative of being unconstitutional.

The suit, filed Thursday by the group Judicial Watch, names as plaintiffs six people whose relatives once lived in Evanston during a 50-year period of housing discrimination that often deprived Black residents from building wealth through homeownership and kept them segregated to a tiny enclave on the city’s western edge.

None of the plaintiffs or their relatives identify as Black, the lawsuit says.

Attorneys for the six plaintiffs argue that the program awards applicants $25,000 based on their race, without having to prove they or their relatives faced housing discrimination. As such, they argue, the reparations program violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, which says all Americans are given equal protection under the law.

Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton told the Tribune that Evanston’s program is “just a proxy for giving out money to people based on race.”

“It looks to me like Evanston wants to be on the cutting edge,” Fitton said. “We don’t want those anti-discrimination protections to be upended through these types of programs. It’s important this be corrected as soon as possible so other states, localities and the federal government don’t go down this path of dolling out tax money to individuals simply based on race.”

Evanston spokesperson Cynthia Vargas said the city would not comment on the litigation but would “vehemently defend any lawsuit brought against our city’s Reparations Program.”

The six named plaintiffs are Margot Flinn, Carol Johnson, Stasys Neimanas, Stephen Weiland, Barbara Regard and Henry Regard. But the lawsuit seeks to establish a class of eligible plaintiffs that could number in the tens of thousands. Fitton estimated the total damages could exceed $1 billion. The suit also asks the court to prevent the city from using race as an eligibility requirement for the program, which as of May 2 has paid out in excess of $4.5 million in reparations, meeting minutes show.

Flinn, 82, who currently lives in Florida, said three generations of her family lived in Evanston and did not experience housing discrimination. Despite this, she is concerned what the potential tax implications could be as the program expands.

“There’s no free lunch in the world,” she said. “The money’s got to come from somebody.”

Weiland, first cousin to Flinn, has lived within the same 30-mile radius his entire life and currently resides in Lake Forest. He made deliveries for his father who owned a flower shop in Evanston on Sherman Avenue even after the family moved to Skokie. His grandfather also lived in Evanston, making him a third-generation Evanstonian.

Reparations are not the way to go with helping those in need, according to Weiland, who said he considers them handouts. Instead, he argues funding should be put toward bettering local school systems and programs to provide jobs.

“That’s the key to lifting up people in this country,” Weiland said. “Handouts don’t work. I don’t believe in handouts.”

If the case is won on his behalf, Weiland said he would be donating the money to several Catholic private schools in Chicagoland who focus on serving underprivileged youth.

Beyond housing, the Evanston Reparations Committee is also exploring other avenues through working groups centered on education initiatives, economic development and community unity.

The program was designed to provide $25,000 payments for Black Evanstonians who were impacted by racial housing policies put in place by the city. Recipients were initially able to use the funding for housing expenses including the purchase of a new home, down payment on a mortgage or for use in home improvements.

The program was expanded in March 2023 to allow for direct cash payments after siblings Kenneth and Shelia Wideman were selected to receive benefits but could not use the money for housing purposes.

Those eligible for the program fall into one of three groups; ancestors who were Evanston residents at least 18 years of age between 1919 and 1969, direct descendants of those ancestors and current residents who can show they have experienced housing discrimination after 1969 due to city policies.

Funding for the program has been pulled from recreational cannabis sales tax as well as an additional $1 million annually from real estate transfer tax revenues for the next 10 years.

As of the May 2 Reparations Committee meeting, 129 ancestors have received money with a majority selecting direct cash payments. The committee has since moved on to disbursing funds to the direct descendant group, comprised of 454 people, and expects to send payments to about 80 people a year.

Approximately $4.6 million has been disbursed in total, according to committee records in May.

This is the second legal battle between Evanston and Justice Watch. In 2021, it sued the city in Cook County court over public records related to the fledgling reparations program. The suit was later dismissed. It’s also mounted legal challenges against race-based initiatives in San Francisco and Minneapolis, among other locations.

The 14th Amendment clause was used recently to strike down a Cook County grant program for small businesses. The suit was filed by the California-based Pacific Legal Foundation.

Judicial Watch describes itself on its website as a “conservative, non-partisan educational foundation, which promotes transparency, accountability and integrity in government, politics and the law.” Fitton has been a frequent speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference. The organization has filed lawsuits on a variety of issues including one in California to force the removal of ineligible voters to the rolls and an amicus brief regarding its opposition to the abortion drug mifepristone.



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