I hesitate to post this entry. Two issues seem to spike the most interest: service animals and religion. But, I got this question yesterday. So, here I go again.
Dealing with religion in our fair housing world can be difficult because religious issues are so emotional. Management is required to balance the religious requests of all, while showing a preference to none. What might be benign to some can be perceived as offensive to others. HUD has made clear that while the Fair Housing Act (“FHA”) does not prohibit religious expression, all residents must be treated equally and without regard to their particular religion.
The FHA makes clear that management cannot publish any notice, statement, or advertisement with indicates a preference, limitation, or any type of discrimination based on religion. 42 U.S.C. 3604(c). Furthermore, the regulations prohibit management from engaging in “inherently religious activities” when participating in any activities funded by HUD. 24 C.F.R. 5.109(c). “Inherently religious activities” include worship, religious instruction, or proselytism. 24 C.F.R. 5.109(c). To be sure, this prohibition is tempered by the qualification that these types of “inherently religious activities” may be offered separately “in time or location” from the programs, activities, or services supported by HUD funds and that participation in these programs must be voluntary for the beneficiaries of the program. 24 C.F.R. 5.109(c). As such, we are tasked to protect the rights of those residents who wish to participate in certain activities as well as the rights of those residents who are of a different faith (or those who have no religion).
In 2006, HUD released a letter from its General Counsel’s office which concluded that offering a bible study that regularly meets in a property’s community room was permitted, provided that participation was strictly voluntary and the leasing office staff entertained/scheduled requests from residents without regard to their specific religion. Furthermore, these types of religious activities (along with other secular activities) may be publicized in the community newsletter. As a general rule, management should have no issue with this type of bible study and residents are welcome to schedule use of a community room for this purpose. Again, any community room should be open to all faiths (and those of no faith) to reserve and use for meetings.
That being said, if there is an “all tenant” meeting or something for the entire community that is sponsored by management, the issue is not quite as simple as there are likely going to be residents of multiple faiths who attend and the rights of all need to be addressed. In a circumstance such as this, I think the better practice is not to start with a specific prayer or other type of overt religious activity from one faith. Doing so could well be perceived as favoring one religion over another.
Just A Thought.