Religious Discrimination in Housing
Finding the right home has long been part of the American dream. That dream should not be denied because of discrimination or harassment based on religion. The Civil Rights Division's Housing and Civil Enforcement Section enforces the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, or familial status. These housing protections apply to discrimination in the sale or rental of housing, and also apply to the "terms and conditions" of the sale or rental of housing. Thus, 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, such as a Jewish mezuzah or a cross. Similarly, when condominiums or apartments have a common room that can be reserved by residents for private activities like parties or book studies, residents seeking to hold a Bible study or other private religious activity may not be discriminated against.
Some recent cases:
- Bloch v. Frischholz: This case involved a Jewish family that was barred from maintaining a mezuzah-- a small case containing a piece of parchment with a religious text on it that many Jews affix to the doorposts of their homes—on the doorpost of their condominium. A federal district court had dismissed the suit. A panel of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the Fair Housing Act does not apply to discrimination that occurs after property was acquired, and that even if it did, the condominium board’s rule barred all objects outside individual units and is not targeted at religion. The case was granted en banc rehearing by the entire Court of Appeals, and the United States urged the court to reverse. On November 13, 2009, the en banc appeals court agreed, holding that the Fair Housing Act does apply to discrimination that occurs after purchase, such as condominium rules. The court also held that there could be a violation of the Fair Housing Act if a general rule was applied inconsistently because of religious animus. The court also suggested that application of a neutral rule that has a disparate impact on certain religions might constitute a Fair Housing Act violation, but found that this issue had not been developed by the family in the proceedings below.
- United States v. Hillman Housing Corporation, Hy Meadows: the United States alleged that a couple's application to buy an apartment in New York had been denied because of their faith and ethnicity. The Department of Justice obtained a consent decree requiring the defendants to pay damages to the couple and to follow advertising, record-keeping, and reporting standards to ensure that they do not discriminate in the future.
- United States v. Altmayer: The Civil Rights Division reached a consent decree in this case alleging that a man in a Chicago suburb harassed his neighbors and their children, because of their Jewish religion and because they were of Israeli and Mexican origin. The consent decree required the defendant to pay $15,000 in damages, barred him from harassing his neighbors in the future, and required him to attend fair housing training. A similar consent decree was reached in United States v. Schmock, in which the United States alleged that a Sikh family was harassed by neighbors.
- United States v. San Francisco Housing Authority: The Civil Rights Division brought suit in this case based on a number of claims, including the Housing Authority's failure to take measures to stop threats and violence against Muslim tenants following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The Division obtained a consent decree that included compensation for the victims, implementation of new policies to address civil rights complaints in public housing in San Francisco, and training for employees.
If you believe you may have been a victim of an illegal housing practice, you may file a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) or file your own lawsuit in federal or state court. You must file the complaint with HUD within one year of the incident that you believe to be housing discrimination. If you choose to file your own lawsuit in federal or state court, the Act requires that you do so within two years of the incident. The Department of Justice can bring a suit for housing discrimination without a complaint being filed with HUD only where there has been a pattern or practice of discrimination (usually meaning that several people were discriminated against, or the existence of an official policy of discrimination). If you believe you may have evidence of a pattern or practice of housing discrimination, please write to the Civil Rights Division's Housing and Civil Enforcement Section.