What is Religious Discrimination?

It is illegal to treat homeseekers differently because of their religion. Religion includes both the practice and non-practice of religion, such as atheism and agnosticism, and even those religions that are not mainstream, like Satanism. The law also prohibits discrimination based on an individual’s perceived religion. That is, even if a housing provider mistakenly believes you are Muslim, it is still illegal to direct anti-Muslim slurs at your family. Religious discrimination extends to religious practices and customs. You cannot be treated differently because you wear religious garb, such as a headscarf or turban, or because you participate in particular rituals.

Does a Housing Provider Have to Accommodate a Tenant’s Religion?

Unlike in the world of employment, housing providers generally do not need to accommodate the religious practices of a tenant or homeowner. Housing providers are entitled to impose neutral rules that apply to everyone. For example, if there were a rule that prohibited the use of candles on the property, the housing provider would not be required to waive this rule so that a tenant could use candles in an important religious ceremony. It’s polite and good practice to accommodate religious beliefs, but the law does not require it.

Am I Entitled to Hang Holiday Decorations?

How you decorate inside of your unit is your business. However, whatever the housing provider’s policy about decorations, it must apply throughout the entire year and to secular and non-secular items. If tenants are allowed to decorate their doors with a welcome sign, then they must be permitted to decorate their doors with a Christmas wreath or, if Jewish, a Mezuzah. If tenants are never allowed to put items on their doors or windows, then it is generally legal to prohibit the hanging of Christmas lights or other religious items in the same places. Housing providers may not suddenly impose an anti-decoration rule because a tenant is complaining about another tenant’s religious décor. The rules are slightly different for people who live in government-owned housing, as the First Amendment would apply.

Are Religious Organizations Exempt from the Ban on Religious Discrimination?

Religious organizations are exempt from only those portions of the Fair Housing laws that ban religious discrimination. A religious institution or affiliated organization may discriminate on the basis of religion only if (1) it is offering housing for non-commercial purposes, and (2) the religion itself does not discriminate on the basis of race, color or national origin. This is a very limited exemption.

Religious housing providers that receive federal or state funds, such as shelters and transitional housing, cannot discriminate on the basis of religion. They may not engage in inherently religious activities, such as proselytizing, or require participants to attend worship and religious instruction.

What Does Religious Discrimination Look Like?

Religious housing discrimination takes many forms, but most often it looks like:

  • Asking renters and homeowners about their religion
  • Refusing to rent to women who wear hijabs, or Sikhs who wear turbans
  • Making rude comments about religious practices or dress
  • Calling Muslims terrorists and telling them that they aren’t welcome
  • Allowing some tenants to put up Christmas lights, but telling others they can’t put up decorations for their religious holidays
  • Telling tenants that they can’t have alters in their units
  • Housing providers putting up non-secular decorations, like crucifixes, in common areas
  • Proselytizing by housing providers or other tenants
  • Being told that you won’t like a neighborhood because there isn’t a mosque, church or synagogue nearby
  • Not being allowed to use community rooms for religious purposes, but being allowed to use them for gatherings, such as parties

Religious Discrimination Resources