Law Center Opposes Discriminatory Zoning Proposals Before City Council

On September 14th, Law Center attorney Michael Churchill testified before Philadelphia City Council in opposition to proposed zoning changes that would ban group homes for people with disabilities from residential areas and would ban methadone clinics from areas in which other medical treatment facilities are allowed to operate.

Speaking on behalf of the Law Center, Churchill testified that banning group homes from residential areas is directly contrary to federal and state law. These homes allow persons with severe disabilities to live in the community near family and friends, instead of being confined in institutions. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that municipalities violate the Constitution if they subject residences for persons with disabilities to different zoning standards than residences for other people. Also, attempts by Pennsylvania communities to exclude methadone clinics from areas in which other medical treatment facilities are allowed have been struck down by federal courts.

Churchill warned in his testimony that Philadelphia faces certain suit and unnecessary expense if it approves the proposed zoning provisions, which blatantly discriminate against some of Philadelphia’s most vulnerable populations.

Download the full statement

Law Center Statement: Pennhurst Haunted Attraction Makes a Mockery of People with Disabilities

September 1, 2010 – Richard Chakejian, the current owner of the Pennhurst State School and Hospital site, and Randy Bates, owner of the Bates Motel and Haunted Hayride, in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania, have reopened the notorious former institution for disabled persons as the “Pennhurst Asylum,” a haunted-house style attraction that open to visitors in the weeks leading up to Halloween. The Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, which has a long history fighting for the people who suffered at Pennhurst, strongly opposes this use of the Pennhurst site.

The successful closure of Pennhurst is a seminal event in the movement for civil rights of people with disabilities. For most of the last century, people with disabilities were forced into state institutions like Pennhurst, where neglect and abuse ran rampant. This began to change in 1977, when a judge deciding Halderman v. Pennhurst held that the forced institutionalization of disabled persons is unconstitutional, finally recognizing the basic human rights of people with disabilities that had long been denied. Because of Pennhurst, children and adults with disabilities now have the opportunity to live, learn, work and play in their communities.

“To use Pennhurst as a haunted house, however well-intended, makes a mockery of the 10,500 residents who lived, suffered and died there and who were freed by the actions of the federal court in Pennhurst. It’s totally inappropriate,” says Sonja Kerr, Director of Disability Rights Projects for the Law Center.

Numerous groups, including the Pennhurst Memorial and Preservation Alliance (PMPA), have also spoken out against the use of Pennhurst campus as a Halloween attraction, and a petition to oppose the attraction is circulating on the Internet.

The PMPA, seeking “to reclaim this once painful place as a center of conscience, healing, and outreach,” had been in discussions with Chakejian to find a respectful and appropriate use for the property. They envisioned the site as a museum, research center, and conference facility for disability history, but Chakejian ultimately went in a different, blatantly disrespectful direction.

“Beginning in the early 1900s, there has been this cloud of misunderstanding and fear of people with disabilities, and that leads to the kinds of abuses we saw throughout the 20th Century – it leads to people being abused and segregated,” says Jennifer Clarke, Executive Director of the Law Center. “The people behind this attraction are capitalizing on the same fear of people with disabilities – it’s the taking that horror and turning it into something entertaining that is offensive.”

“The fundamental point,” Clarke says, “is that this is a place with history that needs to be treated with deep respect, sadness and understanding.”