Religion, like politics, is a topic people typically avoid in polite company. It provokes emotion, elicits strong opinions, and can be deeply personal. As such, religion is a topic that can spark a great deal of conflict. Community associations are not immune from this struggle.

We regularly receive inquiries from managers and board members asking how to handle religious issues in their communities. One of the most common inquiries is what to do about member requests to use common area for religious meetings and prayer groups. While community associations routinely get requests from members to use common area for group meetings, associations are often particularly concerned about the ramifications of religious meeting requests because of the controversy such requests can engender. Will the membership be upset that religious meetings are being held in common area? Will chaos erupt if we grant the request despite vocal opposition on the topic at the last board meeting? Can we just ban religious meetings in general in order to avoid the issue altogether? Will we be sued for religious discrimination if we deny the member request?

The simple answer to the last question is: “Yes, you can be sued.” In evaluating religious meeting requests, associations must keep in mind the requirements of California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act (“Unruh Act”) and Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA). The Unruh Act and FEHA both prohibit arbitrary discrimination by community associations based on religion (amongst a variety of other factors based on personal beliefs, background, and other personal characteristics). The Unruh Act expressly guarantees to all persons in the State of California, the “full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever” “no matter what their sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, or sexual orientation.” (Civil Code Section 51(b)). Similarly, the FEHA expressly states that “the practice of discrimination because of … religion… in housing accommodations is declared to be against public policy.” (Government Code Section 12920). Prohibited acts under FEHA include the provision of inferior housing terms, conditions, privileges, facilities, or services.

If an association’s decisions and policies are applied uniformly to all members regardless of race, color, or religion, or other protected classification, such policies should be valid when tested against the Unruh Act and FEHA. If, however, an association refuses access to housing or facilities based upon a belief that an entire class may present a greater problem than other groups, such policy is likely in violation of both the Unruh Act and FEHA. For example, in situations where an association bases a policy or decision not to allow a religious group to use common area for meetings because of a concern that it might upset the rest of the membership, an association may be in violation of these laws.

Such a policy prohibiting religious groups from using common areas for meetings when other groups are allowed to do so violates the Unruh Act and the FEHA because the policy restricts access to common area facilities based upon a classification, religion, which is explicitly protected under both the Unruh Act and FEHA. Even if a specific religion is not listed in the policy, the fact that religion is used to determine whether a group’s use is appropriate is sufficient to place an association in violation of these Civil Rights laws.

Associations should carefully consider the legal ramifications of policies and decisions regarding the use of common area for religious purposes. When drafting a policy about use of common areas by residents, associations should focus on content-neutral issues like noise, hours of operation, and clean-up while steering away from policies that single-out specific groups such as religious organizations. Associations with questions or concerns regarding decisions and policies related to religious meetings should seek the advice of legal counsel for assistance in drafting or enforcement.

Written by Jonathan R. Davis

Jonathan R. Davis, Esq. is a Senior Associate Attorney at Richardson|Ober|DeNichilo.