Religious freedom

On Jan. 16, 1786, the Virginia General Assembly passed the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson, which stated that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

This legislative action was the forerunner of the religious protections that were later enshrined in the First Amendment, whose “free exercise” clause guarantees all Americans both the right and the freedom to follow their consciences in matters of religion in both their public and private lives.

But every so often, that lesson has to be relearned, as recently happened in Fredericksburg to retired Lutheran minister Ken Hauge and his wife, Liv, both in their mid-80s. In July 2018, the Hauges were shocked to receive an eviction notice for holding a nondenominational Bible study in their two-bedroom apartment at the Evergreens at Smith Run, and for using the senior housing complex’s community room for various other religious activities.

Although the Evergreens management had previously given the octogenarian couple permission to use the common facilities, they were no longer allowed to hold gatherings there. “Multiple residents have stated to Landlord that they feel uncomfortable using the Club Room due to the frequency of religious activities,” which the company characterized as conducting a business, according to the eviction notice.

But a federal civil rights lawsuit filed last May against Maryland-based Community Realty Co. Inc., the Evergreens’ management company, by attorneys at Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP in Richmond and the First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit public interest law firm, told a much different story.

A small group of residents hostile to the Hauges “went so far as to verbally accost Bible Study participants and, on at least one occasion, physically assault them,” according to the lawsuit, which also charged that the company violated the federal Fair Housing Act and the Virginia Fair Housing Law because it “unlawfully made unavailable or otherwise denied the Hauges part of their dwelling because of religion, by expressly conditioning the Hauges’ continued tenancy at The Evergreens on not conducting ‘Bible study class’ within their apartment or the Community Room.”

The lawsuit asked the court to order the company “to cease all forms of religious discrimination against the Hauges in their use of their private apartment and related amenities, including the Community Room, and take reasonable steps to investigate and prevent other residents interference in the Hauges’ religious practices.”

In a letter to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, First Liberty attorney Lea Patterson pointed out that the Evergreens management allowed “actual commercial activity in common areas, including staff Tupperware parties, Boy Scout popcorn sales and charity fundraising sales. In contrast, Evergreens’ willingness to categorize a vague, tangential appearance of religious content as prohibited ‘business’ activity evinces a deeply discriminatory intent to isolate, intimidate, and discriminate against our clients and other residents because of their religious identity.”

Last month, First Liberty Institute announced that Evergreens’ management company had settled the lawsuit, a tacit admission by the company that they were likely to lose in court.

Although the financial terms were not publicly disclosed, the company reportedly agreed to lift its unlawful restrictions on the Hauges’ constitutionally protected religious activities, rescind its threat to evict them, and allow them to resume hosting their Bible study in the complex, including the club room, which they finally did last month for the first time in two years.

This resolution is not only a victory for this elderly Fredericksburg couple, it’s a timely reminder to anyone who thinks they can bully believers that they are on the wrong side of the law.

— Adapted from The Free Lance Star, Fredericksburg

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