The District Court for the Northern District of Illinois has rejected RLUIPA and other claims asserted by a religious group in Affordable Recovery Housing v. City of Blue Island (N.D. Ill. 2016).  The case stems from Affordable Recovery Housing’s (ARH) attempt to open a faith-based recovery home for adult men recovering from drug and alcohol addictions.  The City’s Fire Chief found that ARH had failed to comply with safety regulations requiring sprinklers, and ordered that ARH cease operating the recovery house until it obtained the proper licenses.  ARH appealed the Fire Chief’s order to the City Council but the order was upheld.  According to ARH, 73 men living at the recovery house were then forced to leave.

When the Fire Chief’s order was issued, the City was evaluating a special use permit application to allow ARH to operate a “planned use development,” which is “a group of two (2) or more principal buildings designed to be maintained and operated as a unit in single or multiple ownership or control and which has certain facilities in common, such as yards and open spaces, recreation areas, garages and parking areas.”  Although ARH had been renting space to operate at the site, following discussion with the City’s Mayor, it submitted the special use permit application at the City’s urging.  The City’s Zoning Board of Appeals approved of ARH’s use of the property, but rejected ARH’s request to allow it three years to install the sprinkler system.

ARH sued under RLUIPA, the U.S. Constitution, the Federal Fair Housing Amendments Act, and the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“IRFRA”).  The District Court rejected the RLUIPA and Illinois RFRA substantial burden claims because it found that the sprinkler issue concerned safety regulations – not a “land use regulation,” subject to the protections of the statutes.  Specifically, the eviction was made pursuant to the fire safety code, not a zoning ordinance, and the fact that ARH had raised the fire safety issue in the context of its special use permit application did not transform it into a land use regulation.  ARH also claimed that the City acted in bad faith and sent it on a “fool’s errand” with respect to zoning compliance, but the District Court disagreed since the Zoning Board of Appeals approved the special use proposal.

One interesting aspect of the decision is that the Court noted that the substantial burden analysis in the Seventh Circuit is now easier for plaintiffs to satisfy:

For many years, the Seventh Circuit described a substantial burden under RLUIPA as one that necessarily bears direct, primary, and fundamental responsibility for rendering religious exercise effectively impracticable… However, in Schlemm v. Wall … the Seventh Circuit recently revisited that standard, noting that two later decisions of the Supreme Court articulate a standard much easier to satisfy… The court explained that the relevant inquiry is whether a particular restriction seriously violated the plaintiff’s religious beliefs, including any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief (internal quotes and citations omitted).

ARH’s First Amendment Free Exercise claim also failed because the sprinkler regulation at issue was neutral and generally applicable – meaning that it applied equally to all uses (religious or not), and any burden on religion was incidental.  It failed to establish claims brought under RLUIPA’s equal terms and unlawful exclusion provisions, as well as the Fair Housing Amendments Act, since the City’s sprinkler requirement “does not hurt handicapped people by reason of their handicap” (emphasis in original).

Even though ARH was unsuccessful, the case may prove to be an important one for religious groups suing under RLUIPA given the Court’s application of a relaxed substantial burden standard.  We previously reported on this trend in the context of the prisoner case – Schlemm v. Wall (post available here).