By Kimberly Rau, MassLandlords
Both the federal Fair Housing Act and the Massachusetts Fair Housing Law consider religion a protected class, which makes it illegal to deny someone housing based on their religious beliefs. However, fair housing practices go beyond approving a rental application. When it comes to religious beliefs, it may surprise you what can be considered discrimination.
“Religious Beliefs” Covers all Religions, and Lack of Religion
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) protects all religions and religious beliefs, regardless of how popular or esoteric they are. (For example, though some regard it as satire, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster has received some limited recognition as a legitimate religion.) These protections also include a ban on discriminating against someone because they wear certain articles of clothing that their religion mandates or encourages.
Furthermore, you cannot discriminate against someone because you disagree with or do not understand their religious practices. Recently, an Orthodox Jewish family sued two New York housing agencies, claiming that they were denied housing because of the number of children they had. They stated that having a large family was a major tenet of their beliefs. The definition of a “sincerely held” religious belief is purposely vague, so always consult with a lawyer before making any decisions about religious accommodations.
The FHA also protects lack of religion. In other words, you cannot refuse to rent to someone because they are agnostic or atheist (or make disparaging comments about the fact that they don’t go to church, believe in God, etc.). You cannot refuse to rent to someone because they no longer practice the faith they once belonged to.
No Preferential Treatment
You must also be aware of preferential treatment when showing rentals. Landlords cannot offer lower rent to tenants who practice a certain religion, or reserve units with nicer amenities or preferential locations for people of a certain faith.
Certain types of religious housing may express a preference for members of a certain faith, but this exemption applies to a small number of housing providers. The housing must be provided by a religious institution or a non-profit associated with a religion, and cannot be a commercial enterprise. The housing provider also may only give a “preference” for members of a certain religion and cannot discriminate based on race, color or national origin.
Religious housing providers who receive any kind of federal funding may not discriminate/express preference based on religion.
Be Aware of Holy Days
If you are renting to an Orthodox Jewish family, it would be unfair to insist on scheduling a full inspection on Saturday, when doing work is prohibited. If one of your tenants goes to church services every Sunday morning, it is discriminatory if the only time you make yourself available to come in for maintenance is during that time.
If your tenant expresses a preference for a certain day of the week or time for inspections, repairs or maintenance, it is unfair to ignore that if you can otherwise accommodate them.
Watch Your (Advertising) Words
“Located in a quiet neighborhood near a park, library and synagogue.”
That sounds like a lovely street to live on, doesn’t it? Who doesn’t enjoy going to the park or taking advantage of all the services the library offers? But by listing a religious institution in your rental ad, you run the risk of looking like you are trying to entice a certain demographic to apply, possibly in preference over those who might practice a different faith.
“Christian landlords” sounds like you really might only be looking for other Christians to rent from you. “Near the Islamic Day School” suggests you’d prefer that Muslims rent the apartment. Even if that’s not your intention, do you really want the headache of a discrimination suit? People are going to figure out what’s nearby the same way they probably found your ad: by searching the internet or driving around town (meaning they’ve probably also passed by the synagogue or temple you may have been tempted to list in your ad). Play it safe and don’t include anything in your rental ad that indicates your faith, or a preference for a certain religion.
Be Careful with Holidays
If you allow one renter to hang a Christmas wreath on their door, you must allow your other tenants to display holiday decorations that correspond with their religious beliefs. If you allow Christmas lights for one tenant, you must allow another to put a light-up menorah in their front window.
If you do not allow your tenants to temporarily modify the outside of their rentals in any way, you must apply that rule evenly to everyone. (Don’t approve Christmas lights or a nativity scene for one and deny generic or secular decorations to another; nor allow an Easter cross on someone’s door but tell a Wiccan they cannot keep crystals on their balcony.)
If your rentals have a common area (such as an apartment lobby or main entrance), stick to non-religious decor during holiday seasons. An evergreen tree with lights is festive; a large nativity is showing preference for one religious winter holiday out of the many that exist. Putting lilies in your lobby in the spring is fine; putting a large cross and a banner that reads “He is Risen!” could run you afoul of the FHA.
Best Practice: No One-Size-Fits-All Gifts
If you are going to give Christmas wreaths to some of your tenants, you should be asking all your tenants which holiday is most important to them and giving a gift of similar value and relevance on that holiday. If that sounds like a headache to you, avoid the practice altogether.
Avoid giving food to your tenants unless you are sure it is something they will use and appreciate. Some religions forbid alcohol or meat consumption; others say no pork or beef or shellfish. Some faiths require special preparation methods for food. And those are just religious concerns; we aren’t even getting into potential allergies or health restrictions.
Remember, it’s OK not to give your tenants gifts as well. You can keep your relationship entirely businesslike (and that’s probably the best way to go).
Do I Have to Allow Candles?
Many landlords do not permit renters to burn candles in the unit, and with good reason: candles are responsible for more than 23,000 residential fires every year. Banning candles has a strong business justification. Therefore, if that is your rule, you should apply that practice evenly for all your tenants. This includes candles for religious purposes. Even prayer candles that are almost entirely encased in glass can be a fire hazard. Open flames are risks you can safely deny.
What if a Tenant’s Practices Bother Others?
Religious beliefs cannot infringe on the “quiet enjoyment” that your tenant’s neighbors are also entitled to. This means that someone’s right to practice their faith does not override the other renters’ rights or privileges.
For example, if your apartment complex has a “no solicitation” rule, then your evangelical Christian tenant (or a tenant of any other religion) can be told not to go knocking on the neighbors’ doors to talk about their faith.
On the other hand, if you allowed the evangelical Christian renter to go door to door passing out tracts, you won’t be able to say much if one of your Jehovah’s Witness tenants does the same.
Many religious celebrations require or encourage music. Some Hindu festivals call for singing and dancing and can get quite lively. As a landlord, you can mandate quiet hours for the comfort of all your tenants. If you are enforcing those rules evenly for everyone, you are within your rights to require that festivals continue at a quiet volume after a certain hour (for instance, 10 p.m.).
If there are complaints, you will want to handle concerns on a case-by-case basis and examine why a tenant may be coming forward. Can they really hear their neighbor’s religious music through the walls, or are they being anti-Semitic? Is your Muslim tenant really “harassing” someone else, or is the person complaining put off by seeing someone in a hijab? If you apply your rules fairly across the board, you’ll be able to mediate things before they become big problems. (“Mrs. Green is welcome to have a mezuzah on her door, and if you want to put up a cross, you’re welcome to.”)
What About Pest Control?
This may seem like an odd thing to include in an article about religious discrimination, but suppose your Buddhist tenant tells you that the first precept of Buddhism is to abstain from taking a life and they object to your extermination practices. Or, if you are Buddhist, how do you handle the ethical dilemma when you don’t want to kill anything, but you also can’t have pests in your rental?
We aren’t going to tell you not to hire an exterminator if you really need one. Sometimes, it’s necessary to do so to eradicate pests (bed bugs are notoriously hard to get rid of). But Massachusetts law does not require you to kill vermin; it states you must keep your property vermin-free. This should be something you want to achieve regardless of your faith.
In this instance, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of pesticides. We recommend utilizing the landlording best practice of exclusion, that is, preventing rodents and insects from gaining access to the rental unit in the first place.
Exclusion is a more permanent solution to extermination (you can kill the mice, but if you aren’t checking the foundation for access points, their brethren will gain entry before you know it). It’s also cheaper, less odorous and safer (you aren’t going to get sick from a window screen in good repair, but breathing in too much insecticide is another story). There are entire articles dedicated to Buddhist-friendly pest removal and exclusion options.
Matters of faith and religion are deeply personal and vary greatly between individuals. On a personal level, it can be fascinating to learn about different religions. If your tenants are doing something that you are unfamiliar with, check your Google calendar. It lists a variety of religious festivals and holy days that you can read about online. You may be surprised to learn how much we all have in common across various faiths.
However, as a landlord, it is never your place to delve into your tenants’ personal lives. It’s best to stay away from questions or comments about religion and focus on renting to (and keeping!) the best possible renters.