The Counsellor's Corner


     Can you refuse to rent to an unmarried couple because you claim it violates your freedom to practice your religion?  Two weeks ago, a divided Ninth Circuit of the United States Court of Appeal said "Yes."  In a two to one decision, the Court ruled that a Christian couple does not have to rent to an unmarried couple despite the fact that there are laws in the City of Anchorage and the State of Alaska which attempt to prevent discrimination in rental housing.

     The landlords sued the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission, claiming that their religious beliefs gave them the right to refuse to rent to unmarried couples.  The unmarried couple in question felt that they were being discriminated against.

     Although this case takes place in Alaska, California is also under the jurisdiction of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court, and Los Angeles City Attorney James Hahn is concerned about this ruling and its prospective effects on anti-discrimination laws in the City of Los Angeles and the State of California.  Mr. Hahn fears that if this ruling stands, the starting point would be discrimination against unmarried couples however it would or could then be extended to gays, lesbians, people who are HIV positive, and basically any one or any couple who do not meet appropriate "life criteria" of the landlords.  The fear is that one could keep anyone out of an apartment up for rent merely by stating that something about that person goes against the landlord's religious beliefs.

     Attorney General Bill Lockyer is also concerned about this ruling, and he recently sent a letter to the other Attorneys General in the Ninth Circuit's jurisdiction, asking them to join him in requesting that all of the judges of the Ninth Circuit review this decision which was made by a three-judge panel.

     The ultimate interest here is that the free exercise of religious beliefs should take a backseat to the "compelling interest in eradicating discrimination in housing on the basis of marital status," according to Lockyer.

     Suddenly, this matter is generating a wealth of attention and the Court is being flooded by what are known as Friend-of-the-Court briefs, which are briefs submitted by people or entities who are not parties to an action but who view the action as significant and therefore wish to be heard.

     This is a very interesting case.  On the one hand you have the rights of landlords to practice freedom of religion, on the other hand you have the rights of all citizens to be permitted to rent property.  The court, in its two-to-one decision ruled that it is not endorsing Christianity but rather is attempting to keep the government neutral and allow a religious belief to be respected.

     I think that this decision is absolute garbage and is ripe for abuse.  Think of where this Pandora's Box can lead if it is opened.  I can see Ku Klux Klan members stating that their "religion" indicates that they should not rent to Jews, Blacks, and others.  Or, how about a landowner creating his own religion and indicating that it doesn't permit the landlord to rent to anyone who doesn't believe the same way he does.

     I am a big fan of freedom of religion, and believe that people ought to be able to enjoy this freedom whenever and wherever possible.  However, here you have a situation where this country has come a long way from a discrimination standpoint, and if this ruling were to stand, it would turn back the clock.

     It would also allow intrusive questions to be asked of respective renters that right now have no place on an application to rent.  It would then become permissible to ask people about their marital status, their religion, and theoretically, their belief system.

     I find this decision both chilling and frightening, not so much for what it says or does in this particular case but for that which can conceivably follow.  It is important not to a take a step backward in the area of discrimination and that's exactly what this decision would do.

     I am confident that the Appellate Court Justices will agree to rehear this with all of the justices being part of the decision-making process, and I believe this two-to-one ruling by a panel of justices will be overturned.  I do not see how this alleged religious belief can be prioritized as being more important than a renter's right to rent without facing discrimination.  Today it's about unmarried couples, tomorrow it could be about anything or anyone, including you or me.


          Dr. Charles J. Unger is a criminal defense attorney in the Glendale law firm of Flanagan, Booth & Unger, and a therapist at the Foothill Centre for Personal and Family Growth.  Mr. Unger writes a bimonthly column on legal and psychological issues.