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 the concerns. 

“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.

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