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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Mezuzah Mishigas: Reasonable Accommodations for Religion?

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On July 10, 2008, a federal appeals court ruled that a Chicago condominium association complied with the Fair Housing Act (FHA) in not making an exception to its “hallway rule” barring owners from placing objects outside their doors. The exception in question concerned the placing of mezuzot (the plural of mezuzah, Hebrew for “doorpost”), which are small decorative cases containing religiously significant parchment that observant Jews are widely known to affix to their doorframe.

The court ruled that the hallway rule didn’t violate the FHA because it’s “neutral with respect to religion.” In other words, the condo association’s ban covers all items without singling out religious ones or items relating to a particular religion. The court likened the request for an exception to “reasonable accommodations,” pointing out that the FHA’s requirement to make reasonable accommodations apply only to people with disabilities. There is no requirement to reasonably accommodate people based on their religion (or sex, race, or anything else) but only a requirement of equal treatment, the court said.

The dissent, however, claimed that the condo association’s refusal to make an exception in this case is, in essence, a “constructive eviction” of observant Jews, who must choose between honoring their faith and keeping their home.

Should reasonable accommodations for people based on characteristics other than disability be required under the FHA? Should the court have ordered the condo association to make the exception on the ground that, while facially neutral, the rule has a “disparate impact” on Jews? Or, should the court have required the exception because it really amounts to intentional discrimination on the part of the condo association?

What do you think?

Interesting to note:

1) By the time the lawsuit was filed, the association’s board had adopted a religious exception to the hallway rule and had instructed its staff to leave mezuzot, crucifixes, and other religious items. The plaintiffs still sued to recover damages for distress they had suffered, plus an injunction to prevent the association from reversing itself.

2) As of December 14, 2005, Chicago has an ordinance that denies a residential building authority to prevent any owner or lessee “from placing or affixing a religious sign, symbol or relic on the door, door post or entrance of an individual apartment, condominium or cooperative housing unit” unless necessary to “avoid substantial damage to property or an undue hardship to other unit owners.”

3) As of January 1, 2007, an Illinois state law requires condo associations to establish a “reasonable accommodation for religious practices, including the attachment of religiously mandated objects to the frontdoor area of a condominium unit.”

1 comment:

Jacob Duchaine said...

I think it's only right that religious expression be permitted. Religion is as much a part of being human as language or society.

However, after having been granted the ability to decorate their door already, I think it was unnecessary to sue.