Imagine you live in an apartment complex. You are surrounded by tenants who have door decorations displayed for the holidays and you have chosen to display a Bible verse on your front door. As far as you know, you may be one of the only residents in the complex who is a Christian. You then receive a notice demanding that you remove your Bible verse from your front door because the display may be offensive to someone. The notice even suggests that your display of a bible verse violates federal law. No other tenant receives the same letter or is asked to remove his/her door decoration.
This is precisely the situation an elderly Christian woman has been facing in Massachusetts. Without any recourse and no hope of addressing the matter with her landlord without possible retaliation, the tenant reached out to the ACLJ for help earlier this month.
We immediately responded by contacting the apartment complex and alerting the owner of the complex that the notice to our client – ordering her to remove her Bible verse display – violated the Fair Housing Act (FHA). We demanded that the apartment complex rescind the notice, permit the religious display, and refrain from any harassment of and/or retaliation against our client for her religious speech. The apartment complex immediately complied.
Contrary to the apartment complex’s erroneous assertion that the FHA would require our client to remove her religious display, the FHA makes it unlawful “to discriminate against any person in the terms, conditions or privileges of sale or rental of a dwelling, or in the provision of services or facilities in connection therewith, because of religion . . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 3604(b). The United States Department of Justice has made clear that under the FHA, “if people are permitted to put decorations on their apartment doors, religious individuals should be able to put religious items or decorations on their doors.”
In this case, the apartment complex indicated its intent to keep the complex “religion neutral,” however, the result was, instead, hostility towards, and discrimination based on, religion. The FHA specifically prohibits a general rule (such as a rule permitting apartment door displays) from being applied in an inconsistent manner – i.e. allowing all displays except those that are religious. Thus, while the FHA requires neutrality, it does not prohibit religious expression, nor does it require, much less permit, the removal of religious expression simply because another tenant may find it offensive. The FHA requires that applicants and tenants for housing be treated equally and without regard to a particular religion.
Fortunately for our client, the matter was quickly resolved just in time for the Christmas season and she now displays her Bible verses on her front door without fear of reprisal. Further, the apartment complex now understands more clearly – and perhaps for the first time ever – its obligations under the FHA requiring equal treatment of its tenants without regard to a particular religion or in a manner that restricts/prohibits religion.
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