Article Courtesy of The Daily Business Review
By Michael Toback
Published September 5, 2018
The community social room is typically one of the most popular amenities in
condominium and homeowner association communities, and as such it must be
governed with care in order to ensure all entitled residents an opportunity
to enjoy it.
Bans of any kind against the use of the community room, such as those for
specific gatherings, should be considered only after prudent consultation
with experienced legal counsel. Furthermore, a ban against religious
gatherings can prove particularly troublesome due to the potential for
violations of the federal Fair Housing Act.
Such cautious considerations may have been overlooked in the decision by a
board of directors of a Port Charlotte condo association to prohibit prayers
and religious meetings in their community’s common room. The ban by the
association for the Cambridge House of Port Charlotte led to the filing of a
complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development alleging
violations of the federal Fair Housing Act as well as Florida condominium
The complaint was filed on March 6 on behalf of Cambridge House resident
Donna Dunbar, who is a lay minister in the Seventh Day Adventist Church and
the leader of a women’s Bible study group that formerly met in the Cambridge
House common room for two hours on Monday mornings. It alleges that on Feb.
6 the Cambridge House’s board of directors adopted a resolution to prohibit
prayers, religious services and religious meetings in the common areas.
The allegations also state that Dunbar and her Bible study group faced
discrimination before the Cambridge House prohibited their meetings,
claiming that the board of directors had previously required her to purchase
insurance in order to hold the gatherings. Dunbar claims this requirement
was despite the Cambridge House not mandating that other groups holding
movie and game nights obtain similar coverage.
After the ban was imposed, Dunbar alleges that religious displays at
Cambridge House were removed, including the removal by property management
staff of a St. Francis of Assisi fountain and statue. Dunbar further claims
that a sign was posted on an organ in the lobby declaring: “ANY AND ALL
CHRISTIAN MUSIC IS BANNED!”
In addition to the discrimination claims, the complaint also alleges
violations of state condominium laws based upon the board of directors’
failure to include the voted-upon resolution on the religious ban in the
agenda for the board meeting. Dunbar’s complaint, filed by her legal counsel
with Greenberg Traurig, asserts that the association’s edict “manifests
profound hostility to Christians and indeed all religious residents, and
discriminates against any resident who wishes to express their faith beyond
the walls of their private residence.”
While there have been several Florida appellate court decisions over similar
association rules, this federal Fair Housing Act complaint will be very
closely watched by the state’s community associations and the professionals
serving them. If HUD finds in favor of Dunbar and takes severe measures
against the Cambridge House, associations will need to take careful note of
the reasoning behind HUD’s decision.
The onus is now on the federal agency to conduct a thorough examination of
the allegations in order to reach a conclusion based upon all of the
available information and prior legal precedent. In addition to deciding
this particular claim, HUD’s decision should clearly spell out what
constitutes federal Fair Housing Act discrimination violations involving
religious gatherings and displays in communities with associations.
In the meantime, Florida community associations should look to this
complaint and be forewarned to tread carefully and always consult with legal
counsel when considering any sort of meeting bans.