The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has affirmed the decision of the Northern District of Illinois, finding against a faith-based recovery home’s claims of religious discrimination and Fair Housing Act violations stemming from a fire code dispute over the installation of a sprinkler system. Our prior post regarding the case is available here. The plaintiff, Affordable Recovery Housing (ARH) sought to operate a faith-based recovery home in the city of Blue Island that would provide support services, overnight lodging, meals and recreation, job training, medical and dental referral, religious outreach, and other services to adult men recovering from drug and/or alcohol addiction. After the mayor approved of ARH’s use, ARH moved 73 men into a facility it had leased from a Catholic order of nuns called the Mantellate Sisters of Mary. The following year, the city of Blue Island’s fire chief decided that before using the buildings, ARH had to install expensive sprinkler systems in the rooms where residents would sleep. The City Council approved the fire chief’s decision. While the city’s zoning board of appeals approved ARH’s application for a special permit, it denied ARH’s request that ARH be given three years to install the sprinkler system.
According to ARH, its 73 residents were “forced” to leave after the city decided that sprinklers had to be installed. ARH sued and alleged violations of Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act (IRFRA), RLUIPA, the Fair Housing Act, and the U.S. Constitution. The District Court ruled in 2014 that because ARH is a state-licensed facility, it is governed by state safety regulations (no sprinkler required), which preempted the city’s safety code regulations – meaning ARH need not install sprinklers. ARH pressed on with its federal claims in order to seek damages and attorneys’ fees, but the Court found for the city.
The Seventh Circuit affirmed. It concluded that the IRFRA claims failed, since “there is no evidence that the expulsion, which turned out to be temporary when the applicable state law was discovered, was attributable to anything other than an honest concern with possible fire hazards to the residents.” Further, ARH “could have avoided the expulsion by researching the state and local regulations applicable to group recovery housing before beginning its project. Nothing compelled it to rush headlong into business; it chose to take that risk.” The Seventh Circuit further ruled that even if the sprinkler requirement was a “land use regulation” triggering RLUIPA, there is no violation as ARH “is not being excluded from Blue Island or even required to install a sprinkler system.” Finally, the Court rejected ARH’s Fair Housing Act claim, because “Blue Island’s exclusion when it forced 73 residents to leave was quickly undone when [ARH] discovered the supervening state law regarding sprinkler systems.”
The decision in Affordable Recovery Housing v. City of Blue Island (7th Cir. 2017) is available here.