A national nonprofit with the stated goal of “protecting religious liberty for all Americans” is accusing a Fredericksburg apartment complex of blatant discrimination against a semi-retired pastor.
The Texas-based First Liberty Institute recently sent a letter asking the Evergreens at Smith Run to rescind its threat to evict Kenneth Hauge if he continued hosting Bible studies in the complex’s clubroom and his own apartment.
Hauge, 86, received an eviction notice last month alleging he was operating a business in violation of his lease, an allegation First Liberty denies.
“Your clients’ actions make clear residents of faith must choose between religious exercise, no matter how quiet, and living with a roof over their heads,” First Liberty attorney Hiram Sasser wrote in a letter last month to a lawyer for the complex.
He wrote that the apartment’s stance violates the U.S. Fair Housing Act and that the nonprofit is prepared to pursue all legal remedies.
Douglas Erdman, president of Community Realty Co.—which owns the age-restricted apartment complex on Cowan Boulevard—wrote in a statement to The Free Lance–Star that the information from First Liberty does not “accurately portray the situation.”
He did not elaborate other than to say that the company adheres to housing laws and that Hauge and his wife, Liv, have “at no point ... been denied the right to practice their religion in their apartment, nor have any other of the residents.”
The eviction notice, which the nonprofit posted on its website, does order Hauge to “cease conducting any business operations” in his apartment, including Bible studies and religious movie screenings. First Liberty said Hauge is a part-time pastor for a small church, but that he led the Bible studies “in his personal capacity and on his own time.”
Jeremy Dys, the nonprofit’s general counsel, said the organization advised Hauge to comply with the apartment’s demands for now to avoid eviction. He said the nonprofit has not received a response from the complex and will likely submit a complaint to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or file a federal lawsuit.
Sasser, of First Liberty, wrote in his letter that other residents of the complex harassed Hauge for hosting the religious classes in the clubroom. At least one tenant repeatedly “verbally abused” the pastor, but Hauge “graciously endured this ill treatment” and never interfered with other residents’ ability to use the space, Sasser wrote.
But the apartment complex’s eviction notice paints a different picture, saying it was Hauge who bothered tenants by pressuring them to join the Bible studies and “making them feel so uncomfortable that they [left] the clubroom to avoid confrontation.” He also invited nonresidents to the clubroom in violation of apartment policies, according to the notice.
In addition, Hauge hosted religious movie screenings and counseling sessions in the clubroom and prevented other residents from entering during the counseling, the eviction notice states. “Some residents have even stated that they will be vacating the community at the conclusion of their respective lease term due to your interference with their ability to peacefully enjoy the community and its facilities,” the notice stated.
The landlord wrote that the eviction notice is a result of “incidents occurring in the clubroom,” not Hauge’s religious beliefs.
First Liberty portrayed the apartment complex as hostile to Hauge’s religion, saying the landlord even insisted that the pastor refer to the Bible studies as “book reviews.” It also claims the complex reneged on its agreement to cover part of the cost of a social dinner because a tenant “briefly and audibly said grace over the meal.”
The conflict arose early last year, when Hauge started leading nondenominational Bible studies with other Evergreen tenants, according to the nonprofit. He applied to reserve the clubroom for the meetings and submitted a down payment to the apartment manager.
The manager insisted Hauge call the Bible study a “book review” before the reservations got cancelled because of a “misunderstanding” of the starting date, First Liberty wrote. The meetings were held in a resident’s apartment for the remainder of 2017.
The manager approved Hauge’s request to use the club room in January, Sasser wrote. But he claimed other tenants attempted to interfere with the Bible studies on several occasions, and the complex released a new policy last month prohibiting religious activities in the club room.
The Evergreens continues to permit nonreligious activities, including birthdays, baby showers and wedding receptions.
University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock said the matter appears to be “explicit discrimination against religious uses” in violation of the Fair Housing Act. Still, he said a judge could see things differently.
“The landlord will rationalize what it’s doing in terms of the purposes of the meeting room, or some such blather, and a judge who thinks religious meetings are inappropriate might go along with that,” Laycock wrote in an email. “But that would not be what the statute says.”