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Hotline How Far Can Faith Take You?

Can a REALTOR® assist a religious organization in selling, renting, and/or marketing residential property they own if the organization is seeking an occupant of their same faith?

The short answer  is  “no,” but there is an exemption in the Fair Housing Act (the “Act”) that permits religious organizations to give preferential treatment to occupants of that organization’s faith. The Act allows religious or related nonprofit organizations to deal exclusively or preferentially with members of their religion in the “sale, rental, or occupancy of dwellings.” A three-part test is used to determine if an organization qualifies for the exemption: 

1) the housing must be provided by a religious organization or a nonprofit that is “operated, supervised, or controlled by or in conjunction with a religious organization;”

2) the housing must be provided for a purpose “other than a commercial purpose;” ; and

3) membership in the subject faith or religion must not be “restricted on account of race, color, or national origin.”

Application of this exemption can be found in the case of Intermountain Fair Housing Council v. Boise Rescue Mission Ministries. The case involved an organization that operated a residential drug treatment program and a homeless shelter that were only open to Christians or those who desired to convert. A woman in the drug treatment program filed a complaint, claiming thatrequiring participation in religious activities in order to be in the program was discriminatory. In applying the three-part test, the Court found that the nonprofit operating the shelter was a religious organization. Next, the Court determined that the shelter did not generate revenue, let alone profit. Finally, the Court found that the nonprofit did not engage in any discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin. Therefore, the Court found that the exemption applied,and the nonprofit was permitted to continue limiting housing in the shelter on the basis ofprospective occupants’ religion.

Another case, U.S. v. Columbus Country Club, resulted in the opposite outcome. In Columbus Country Club, a country club rented properties only to its members, all of whom were Roman Catholic. The federal government sued the country club claiming religious discrimination. The country club claimed that although it was not a religious organization, it was a nonprofit that acted in conjunction with the Roman Catholic Church because the church held services at the country club each week. The Court read the exemption narrowly and found that the club was nota related nonprofit Because the country club had no formal relationship with the church, it was not “operated, supervised or controlled by” the church. Because the church was barely involved in the operation of the country club, the nonprofit did not act “in conjunction with” the church. Accordingly, the Court found that the exemption did not apply.

However, even if the religious exemption applies to a religious or related nonprofit organization, such properties cannot be advertised (including listed on the MLS) because there is no religious exemption with respect to advertising. The Act prohibits the making, printing, and publishing of advertisements that indicate a preference, limitation, or discrimination based on religion.Additionally, REALTORS® are not allowed to assist in a residential transaction even if it qualifies under the religious exemption. Regulations adopted under the Act state: “It shall be unlawful for any person … whose business includes engaging in the … brokering … of residential real property to discriminate against any person …  in the performance of such services, because of … religion.”


Steven Messmer, author

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