St. Patrick is known for bringing Christianity to the island of Ireland. Legend has it that in addition to his missionary work, the good St. Patrick blessed the Emerald Isle by banishing all reptiles from its shores.
Every year around this time, St. Patrick comes back into my mind. But not because of rivers that turn green or the return of clover to my yard. It’s because of Donna Dunbar.
Donna and her husband Clarence love to serve their community in Port Charlotte, Florida. They founded a soup kitchen, at which they donated over 4,000 volunteer service hours—an act that won them the President’s Volunteer Service Award.
But, things aren’t as rosy at their condominium. Donna is a lay minister in the Seventh Day Adventist tradition. She welcomes a few of her friends to the social room at her condo each week for a Bible study. The room is used by lots of people. Some play games there, there’s a weekly poker game, and even a regular movie night for all to attend.
Until recently, Donna’s Bible study was no big deal. But, without any announcement or warning, the condo association board adopted a resolution putting an end to the use of the common areas of Donna’s condo for religious purposes, including her Bible study. Someone even put a sign on the community’s organ that read, “Any and all Christian music is banned!”
When the media showed up to meet with Donna, the irony was obvious. Adorning the walls, hanging from the ceiling, and decorating the tables of the very community room from which Donna’s innocent Bible study was unceremoniously banished were the green decorations for St. Patrick’s Day. While the condo association has staunchly defended their decision to kick Donna and her friends out of the community room for daring to study their faith together, it evidently had no problem with the community celebrating the missionary zeal of St. Patrick.
Both should be permissible in a country as committed to religious liberty as is America. In fact, Federal law is quite clear on the point: it is unlawful to prevent condo residents from using community space for religious purposes. That means not only should the community room welcome the St. Patrick’s Day decorations, it should welcome Donna’s Bible study, too.
Donna’s situation is not unique. Ken Hauge experienced a similar situation in Virginia. This retired Lutheran minister provided something for which many home-bound community members longed: someone to teach them the Bible. Too fragile to make it to weekly services, they welcomed one of their own to use the community room sometimes used for movie and poker nights to teach them Holy Scripture.
But his community shut that down. They changed their rules, banning the use of the community room for any religious purpose. When Ken moved his study to his own, very small apartment, the management stepped up their threats. They accused Ken of conducting a business in his apartment, violating the terms of his contract. If he chose to continue, his contract would be cancelled and Ken and his wife—each over the age of 80 and in declining health—would be evicted.
Rather than embrace the beauty of our founding documents that guarantee the “inalienable right” to pursue happiness and ensure each citizen would be free to exercise their faith, absent any kind of persecution, it is strange that some silence and censor religion. And if those founding documents are not enough, there are several federal laws—including laws on fair housing—that protect the free exercise of religion.
Although my law firm, First Liberty Institute, filed a complaint with the department in each of these cases—black letter law violations of the Fair Housing Act—after nearly two years, there has been no resolution! Ken lives in fear that he will be evicted. Donna still fears her detractors.
Rather than show a commitment to increasing religious liberty, the slow-to-action investigation by the U.S. Department on Housing and Urban Development encourages hostility to religion by private actors. Surely ours is a country yet tolerant enough to permit octogenarians to meet in a Bible study.
It should be frightening to each of us that a management company or condo association would use the threat of eviction to stop residents from meeting together peacefully to discuss any issue, let alone their faith.
Perhaps we can put up with the reptiles, but it would be nice if St. Patrick returned a little respect for religion to our shores.
Jeremy Dys is Deputy General Counsel for First Liberty Institute. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org.