A longstanding dispute between a religious addiction
recovery group and the city of Blue Island ended last week in federal court in
Chicago, after a judge said the suburban city did not violate the group’s
rights by seeking to force it to install fire sprinklers in its buildings.
Affordable Recovery Housing, which provides residential
space in Blue Island for people recovering from addictions, lodged a
discrimination complaint against the city and its fire chief, Terry Vrshek, after
the chief gave an eviction notice to Affordable Recovery in May 2012, saying
the city’s building code required the group to install fire sprinkler systems
in its homes.
After losing an appeal, the group sued.
On Nov. 17, 2014, a court ruled the city had overstepped its
bounds, since Affordable Recovery is regulated by the Illinois Department of
Human Services, superseding municipal zoning authority. The group followed by
suing the city for initiating the action in the first place. In his opinion
issued Sept. 21, U.S. District Judge Robert M. Dow Jr. ruled on the cross-filed
motions for summary judgments.
According to the opinion, the Mantellate Sisters of Mary
have owned five Blue Island buildings since the mid-1950s. One has been used
throughout as a convent, the others were Mother of Sorrows High School until
the mid-80s, after which it was leased to a school district for use as a high
school since 2009. After that is when the former school was converted into a
faith-based recovery home.
Though Vrshek issued the eviction in May 2012, the DHS
licensed Affordable Recovery as of Sept. 9, 2013, and state regulations
governing recovery homes don’t require sprinkler systems. So while that renders
the primary dispute moot, Dow wrote, it leaves open the question of whether the
city’s insistence on the sprinkler system violated any laws and, if so, whether
Affordable Recovery is entitled to any damages.
Affordable Recovery’s motion for summary judgment narrowed
its focus to three of eight original claims — a substantial burden claim
under both the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and the
Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and its failure-to-accommodate
claim under the Fair Housing Amendments Act. Blue Island’s motion for summary
judgment, however, addressed all eight claims.
In analyzing the claims, Dow noted Affordable Recovery
brought some of the initial challenges on itself by moving people into the
property before meeting compliance regulations and ahead of benchmarks
established in the initial plan the city had approved. So while the issues the
eviction created were substantial, the organization’s own actions exacerbated
“Affordable Recovery Housing put the cart before the horse,
accelerating its operations into full force before dotting its i’s and crossing
its t’s with the city,” Dow wrote. “To hold otherwise would incentivize
organizations … to put progress before safety, which not only jeopardizes the
security of property and those within, but also places the government in the
difficult position of having to slow the progress of these organizations in
order to protect them.”
Dow further explained the failure-to-accommodate claim
failed because Blue Island’s “sprinkler requirement does not hurt handicapped
people by reason of their handicap.” And whereas Affordable Recovery tried to
argue the financial difficulty it would have faced in installing a sprinkler
system was discriminatory, Dow sided with Blue Island, noting the FHAA does not
require the city to grant an accommodation based on finances.
Dow cited a 1990 Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals opinion in
Love Church v. City of Evanston,
which explained: “The harsh reality of the marketplace sometimes dictates that
certain facilities are not available to those who desire them.”
Ultimately, Dow asserted, Affordable Recovery’s “attempt to
square-peg its arguments into the round holes of the many claims it asserts in
this lawsuit lacks the requisite connective tissue (i.e., supportive case law)
to create a triable issue of fact.”
Dow denied Affordable Recovery’s motion for summary judgment
and entered judgment in favor of the city, dismissing the housing group’s
religious discrimination claims.
Affordable Recovery was represented in the action by attorneys with the firm of Mauck & Baker, of Chicago.
Blue Island was defended by the firm of Sanchez Daniels & Hoffman, of Chicago.