GRAND RAPIDS -- The 31-year-old nursing student was looking to keep her expenses down when she decided to invite someone to share her home.
But when she posted an advertisement for a Christian roommate on her local church's bulletin board, the Grand Rapids woman landed in the middle of a civil rights debate that has her facing a complaint of alleged illegal housing discrimination.
The advertisement contained the sentence, "I am looking for a Christian roommate," said Joel Oster, senior litigation counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, which represents the woman.
Someone saw the ad over the summer and anonymously filed a civil rights complaint with the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan. The complaint was then filed with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, and the woman was notified at the end of September.
"I think it's a clear violation on its face," said Nancy L. Haynes, executive director of the local Fair Housing Center. "It's an advertisement that clearly violates the Fair Housing Act."
Although the woman might choose a roommate based on religion, say, after interviewing the person over coffee, she cannot publish an ad with that intent, Haynes said.
"She can choose to rent to a Christian, that's her prerogative," she said. "It's a separate violation to make a discriminatory statement, to publish a discriminatory statement."
But Oster said the law protects his client's rights and allows her to "seek a roommate of similar faith."
"That's insane to think that a person cannot request and seek out a Christian roommate," Oster said. "Each statute protects the right of a person to have a roommate of their own choosing."
The Alliance Defense Fund is a Christian legal group. In a statement released Thursday, Oster added, "Christians shouldn't live in fear of being punished by the government for being Christians. It is completely absurd to try to penalize a single Christian woman for privately seeking a Christian roommate at church -- an obviously legal and constitutionally protected activity.
"Not content to just lock Christians and their beliefs into the four walls of their church or home, some groups also want to invade those walls and force their own ideas upon them by force of law."
Oster declined to identify his client, citing privacy concerns.
A section in the Fair Housing Act does prevent people from publishing an advertisement stating their preference of religion, race or handicap with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling, said Harold Core, director of public affairs for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.
There are exemptions for gender when there is a shared living space, Haynes said.
Core did not comment on the Grand Rapids woman's case specifically, or what could happen in her case.
"It's really difficult to say at this point what could potentially happen," he said.
The MDCR might talk to witnesses, do site visits and request documents. In some cases, depending on the cooperation of the parties involved, a person found to have committed a civil rights violation might have to reimburse another individual who suffered damages, Core said.
"Sometimes it is just a change in policies or practices that are found to be discriminatory," he said.
The Fair Housing Center of West Michigan might ask for an initial reimbursement of $300 for time spent on the issue and training for the woman, in addition to pulling down the ad, Haynes said.
"Our interest really lies in her getting some training so that this doesn't happen again," she said.
The Alliance Defense Fund sent a letter to the MDCR asking that the complaint be dismissed, but has not received a response.
The situation would be different if the woman was a landlord, or ran an apartment complex, Oster said.
"That's a totally different ball game," he said of the woman, who lives in her own home.
But Haynes said this case is not much different.
"This is about a business transaction," she said. "While she's not a landlord per se, she is looking for someone to pay her to live in her house."
I whole heartily agree with intent of the Fair Housing Act, which is a landlord should not be allowed to discriminate against renters based on a persons race, ethnicity or religion. However, when a person is looking for a roommate the fair housing act should not be enforced as generally the intent of getting a roommate is to help defray housing costs, not to generate income, which is what a landlord is doing by renting.
Also because you are sharing the same living space a person's compatibility to be a roommate will be based on additional factors other than ability to pay. Could you imagine how well two roommates might get along say if an Orthodox Jew decided to rent a room in their house but because of religious reasons the Christian roommate was prohibited from using the lights and stove on the Sabbath and had to learn to cook kosher meals? Wouldn't it be easier if the Orthodox Jew were allowed to just put an ad in local synagogue's newsletter seeking an Orthodox Jewish roommate rather than turning down every Christian who answered the ad ,which is what that idiot Nancy L. Haynes, executive director of the local Fair Housing Center, stated was the proper thing to do. Yes, Ms. Haynes we should all waste our time and offend people unnecessarily so that we can follow the letter of law and ignore basic common sense.