Is Tenant Playing the ‘Religion’ Card

Rent it Rightby Janet Portman, Inman News

Law booksQ: During an interview with a potential landlord, we were asked some odd questions that, on reflection, seemed designed to find out if we are religious.

She asked me where we got married (not just the city, but the site), and how we liked to spend Sundays.
We replied honestly — we got married at a hotel, and spend Sundays on our bikes or hiking — no mention of attending religious services. Though we have excellent credit and references, we were turned down, and later learned from someone in the building that the owner is practically a religious fanatic. Was this an instance of illegal discrimination? –Marcia S.

A: Let’s assume for the moment that this landlord was in fact trying to figure out whether you were religious. Under the federal Fair Housing Act (and similar laws of many states), landlords may not “¦ make ¦ any ¦ statement ¦ with respect to the ¦ rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on ¦ religion,” per 42 U.S.C.A. Section 3604(c).When discrimination based on religion comes up in the rental application process, it’s usually in the form of a landlord wanting to avoid renting to prospects of a certain religion, or wanting to attract those of specific religions.

For example, a landlord’s remark during an interview that few Catholics live on the property could be evidence of that landlord’s preference for non-Catholics. Conversely, a landlord’s repeated references to a nearby synagogue and the house rule for quiet hours between sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday could be taken to convey a preference for religious Jews.

What you encountered, however, was not a preference for or against people in specific religions, but evidence of the landlord’s preference for religious persons in general. The question is, did Congress intend to protect people who are not religious from discrimination to the same extent that members of mainstream religions are protected?

This question has been answered with a resounding “yes” in the employment context. Simply put, religious freedom includes the freedom to reject religion: For the purposes of anti-discrimination law, not believing in God (or a particular religion’s version of same) is a protected religious belief. If employers refuse to hire or otherwise discriminate against humanists, agnostics or atheists, employees can sue for religious discrimination. As odd as it may seem (particularly to atheists), these laws treat atheism as a form of religion.

To my knowledge, no state or federal court has addressed the question in a rental context, however. If you were to take your case to court, you’d be asking the judge to take a cue from the employment cases and give you the protection of the anti-discrimination laws.

But then you’d face two more significant hurdles. First, you’d have to prove that the landlord’s questions were intended to ferret out nonreligious applicants (or had the effect of discouraging nonreligious applicants). Though the questions seem pointed, they could simply be an inept attempt at small talk by someone who is trying to get to know you.

And if you couldn’t prove discriminatory intent, you’d have the burden of proving that others like you thought that the landlord was discriminating and felt discriminated against. That is a tall order. Second, you’d need to convince the judge that your answers were more likely than not the cause of your not getting the rental. Again, not an easy task.

For example, if the successful applicant had a better credit score, more enthusiastic references, or an expressed desire to remain in the rental for a longer period of time, the landlord could reasonably point to these legally legitimate factors as the reason you didn’t get the rental.Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of “Every Landlord’s Legal Guide” and “Every Tenant’s Legal Guide.” She can be reached at [email protected].
Copyright 2009 Janet Portman

See Janet Portman’s feature, Landlord Charges Extra for Lawn Care.
American Apartment Owners Association offers discounts on products and services for landlords related to your real estate investment including REAL ESTATE FORMS, tenant debt collection, tenant background checks, insurance and financing. Find out more at joinaaoa.

To subscribe to our blog, click here.