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).

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Photo of Evan Seeman Evan Seeman

Evan J. Seeman is a lawyer in Robinson+Cole’s Hartford office and focuses his practice on land use, real estate, environmental, and regulatory matters, representing local governments, developers and advocacy groups. He has spoken and written about RLUIPA, and was a lead author of…

Evan J. Seeman is a lawyer in Robinson+Cole’s Hartford office and focuses his practice on land use, real estate, environmental, and regulatory matters, representing local governments, developers and advocacy groups. He has spoken and written about RLUIPA, and was a lead author of an amicus curiae brief at the petition stage before the United States Supreme Court in a RLUIPA case entitled City of San Leandro v. International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

Evan serves as the Secretary/Treasurer of the APA’s Planning & Law Division. He also serves as the Chair of the Planning & Zoning Section of the Connecticut Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Section, and is the former Co-Chair of its Municipal Law Section. He has been named to the Connecticut Super Lawyers® list as a Rising Star in the area of Land Use Law for 2013 and 2014. He received his B.A. in political science and Russian studies (with honors) from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where he was selected as the President’s Fellow in the Department of Modern Languages and Literature. Evan received his Juris Doctor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, where he served on the Connecticut Law Review. While in law school, he interned with the Connecticut Office of the Attorney General in the environmental department, and served as a judicial intern for the judges of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Court. Following law school, Evan clerked for the Honorable F. Herbert Gruendel of the Connecticut Appellate Court.

Photo of Karla Chaffee Karla Chaffee

Karla L. Chaffee is a member of Robinson+Cole’s Real Estate + Development Group and is based in the Boston office, focusing on a variety of land use and environmental matters. Karla’s interest in RLUIPA began in law school when she co-authored, “Six

Karla L. Chaffee is a member of Robinson+Cole’s Real Estate + Development Group and is based in the Boston office, focusing on a variety of land use and environmental matters. Karla’s interest in RLUIPA began in law school when she co-authored, “Six Fact Patterns of Substantial Burden in RLUIPA: Lessons for Potential Litigants,” (with Dwight Merriam) published in Albany Government Law Review (Spring 2009). Karla has continued to write and speak on RLUIPA and has represented clients in several federal proceedings, including RLUIPA, First Amendment, and Equal Protection claims. In addition to her RLUIPA practice, Karla has litigated complex environmental matters, defending claims under Massachusetts Chapter 21E. Karla’s transactional experience includes pre-acquisition and pre-financing due diligence, environmental risk assessment and risk mitigation. She also represents clients seeking local zoning approvals and counsels them on the impact of proposed or recently enacted land use legislation, as well as on land use trends across the country.

Karla is also a proud member of Robinson+Cole’s Pro Bono Committee and is dedicated to maintaining pro bono work as part of her practice. Her pro bono clients include individuals and families seeking asylum in the United States. She has also represented nonprofit organizations in obtaining tax-exempt status and has served as legal counsel in a zoning appeal for a nonprofit association created to support and protect a national park.

Photo of Dwight Merriam Dwight Merriam

Dwight H. Merriam founded Robinson+Cole’s Land Use Group in 1978. He represents land owners, developers, governments and individuals in land use matters, with a focus on defending governments in RLUIPA cases. Dwight is a Fellow and Past President of the American Institute of…

Dwight H. Merriam founded Robinson+Cole’s Land Use Group in 1978. He represents land owners, developers, governments and individuals in land use matters, with a focus on defending governments in RLUIPA cases. Dwight is a Fellow and Past President of the American Institute of Certified Planners, a former Director of the American Planning Association (APA), a former chair of APA’s Planning and Law Division, Immediate Past Chair of the American Bar Association’s Section of State and Local Government Law, Chair of the Institute of Local Government Studies at the Center for American and International Law, a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation, a member of the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute National Advisory Board, a Fellow of the Connecticut Bar Foundation, a Counselor of Real Estate, a member of the Anglo-American Real Property Institute, and a Fellow of the American College of Real Estate Lawyers.

He teaches land use law at the University of Connecticut School of Law and at Vermont Law School and has published over 200 articles and eight books, including Inclusionary Zoning Moves Downtown, The Takings Issue, The Complete Guide to Zoning, and Eminent Domain Use and Abuse: Kelo in Context. He is the senior co-author of the leading casebook on land use law, Planning and Control of Land Development (Eighth Edition). Dwight has written and spoken widely on how to avoid RLUIPA claims and how to successfully defend against them in court. He is currently writing a book on the subject, RLUIPA DEFENSE, for the American Bar Association.

Dwight has been named to the Connecticut Super Lawyers® list in the area of Land Use Law since 2006, is one of the Top 50 Connecticut Super Lawyers in Connecticut, and is one of the Top 100 New England Super Lawyers (Super Lawyers is a registered trademark of Key Professional Media, Inc.). He received his B.A. (cum laude) from the University of Massachusetts, his Masters of Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina, where he was the graduation speaker in 2011, and his J.D. from Yale. He is a featured speaker at many land use seminars, and presents monthly audio land use seminars for the International Municipal Lawyers Association. Dwight has been cited in the national press from The New York Times to People magazine and has appeared on NBC’s The Today Show, MSNBC and public television.

Dwight also had a career in the Navy, serving for three tours in Vietnam aboard ship, then returning to be the Senior Advisor of the Naval ROTC Unit at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill where he taught Defense Administration and Military Management as an Assistant Professor in the undergraduate and graduate curriculum in Defense Administration and Military Management. He left active duty after seven years to attend law school, but continued on for 24 more years as a reserve Surface Warfare Officer with two major commands, including that of the reserve commanding officer of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. He retired as a Captain in 2009 after 31 years of service.