QUESTION: A couple in our senior community is holding Bible study meetings in the clubhouse one night a week. It's open to anyone who wants to attend. Is it legal for the board to approve the clubhouse for such meetings?
ANSWER: There is nothing illegal or improper in allowing a Bible study in the clubhouse. It would be intolerant to exclude homeowners from using the facilities based on their religion. As long as space is available and they follow the rules, there should be no discrimination toward any religious group that wants to peacefully gather.
Clubhouse Activities. In 2018, a 55+ homeowners association settled a lawsuit over this issue. The association had allowed members to reserve rooms at its 8,000 square-foot clubhouse for activities such as book clubs, card games, Bible studies, arts & crafts, etc. They had over 30 clubs and interest groups using their common area facilities.
Atheist Objects. An atheist objected to Bible studies in the clubhouse and threatened to sue the association. In response, the board banned all religious or faith-based groups from using the common areas.
Litigation Erupts. Affected members contacted the Pacific Justice Institute, a nonprofit legal organization that defends religious freedoms and civil liberties. They sued the association for violation of the Unruh Civil Rights Act and the Fair Employment and Housing Act for denying access to the common areas on the basis of religion. In addition to injunctive relief, members sought punitive damages against the association and its directors.
Settlement. The association sought to have the complaint dismissed or at least dismiss punitive damages. The judge refused and trial was scheduled. The parties went into mediation and the association agreed to a number of concessions, including giving faith-based groups equal access to common area facilities.
Recommendation: Associations cannot engage in discrimination and expect a successful outcome. State and federal laws are quite clear in their prohibition of discrimination. Boards should have legal counsel review their policies to ensure they are non-discriminatory. In addition, boards should adopt an anti-harassment policy.
ASSISTANCE: Associations needing legal assistance can contact us. To stay current with issues affecting community associations, subscribe to the Davis-Stirling Newsletter.