HUD Initiates Religious Discrimination Fair Housing Act Case

Fox Rothschild LLP

Fox Rothschild LLP

Most of the fair housing cases I report about in this Blog are brought by individuals or on behalf of individuals by a local fair housing advocacy group. There is, however, another way for a complaint to be filed. The federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) as well as many state law counterparts, permit what is called a “Secretary’s Complaint” to be initiated against a property owner or manager.

Complaints filed by the Secretary of the Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) are typically used in situations involving a nationwide or other significant concern that may involve more than just an issue for one resident at one property. To be clear, a Secretary’s Complaint, like a traditional complaint, is not a determination of liability and the property owner/management still has the complete opportunity to defend itself.

To that end, earlier this month, HUD announced a Secretary-initiated complaint was filed against a property owner and manager of senior living apartments in Oklahoma alleging FHA claims as HUD claims the owner/manager removed Bibles and related Christian reading material from the common areas. By its terms, discrimination based on religion is one of the protected classes in the FHA.

HUD learned of the issue when the Department received a letter from a resident at the community who claimed to be upset that management demanded the removal of religious reading material from the common areas. In addition to the religious reading materials, the resident stated that management required angel ornaments be removed from the property’s Christmas tree. In a press release announcing the case, HUD takes the position that “[b]arring religious materials infringes upon [religious liberty], and the Trump Administration will not stand for discrimination against any group for practicing their religious traditions.”

There are a handful of issues here, including that the property owner could have been simply attempting to show preference to no religion. Please understand that management walks a fine line in our effort to be welcoming to all religions while showing favoritism toward none. I will be curious to learn more about the specific facts (as there is always another side). Similarly, I typically advise my clients that Christmas trees (along with traditions like Santa and holiday elves) are so commonplace these days that there are good reasons to permit them while remaining in compliance with the law. Indeed, many times a community will have a designated area for residents to voluntarily display holiday decorations that is welcoming to all faiths.

I will report back as more facts are presented here.

Just A Thought.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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