Michigan high court rules anti-discrimination law trumps landlords’ religious rights

Friday, January 8, 1999

The Michigan Supreme Court has ruled that landlords cannot refuse to rent property to unmarried couples, even for religious reasons.

In 1993 an unmarried couple attempted to rent residential property from a Jackson, Mich., married couple. The married couple, John and Terry Hoffius, cited religious reasons for refusing to rent. The unmarried couple, Kristal McCready and Keith Kerr, sued the Hoffiuses in state court, arguing that the Michigan Civil Rights Act barred landlords from discriminating against people because of their marital status.

The Hoffiuses argued that they had a deeply held religious belief against unmarried cohabitation. Two lower Michigan courts ruled in their favor, both saying that the wording of the state's civil rights act did not extend government protection against discrimination to unmarried couples.

The Michigan Supreme Court, however, late last month found that the state's civil rights act did bar landlords from refusing to rent or sell housing to unmarried couples.

The state civil rights law reads: “A person engaging in a real estate transaction, or a real estate broker or salesman, shall not on the basis of religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, familial status, or marital status of a person or a person residing with that person refuse to engage in a real estate transaction with that person.” State high courts in Alaska, Massachusetts and California have also held that their civil rights laws bar marital-status discrimination in housing.

“In this case, the defendants (the Hoffiuses) refused to rent to plaintiffs because their marital status is 'single' and, therefore, unmarried,” Justice Marilyn Kelly wrote for the majority of the Michigan Supreme Court. “We will not read the act to shield such a discriminatory act.”

The Hoffiuses also argued before the Michigan high court that their First Amendment free exercise of religion right shielded them from complying with the state civil rights law.

“The question before us is whether the state's interest in providing equal access to housing to all regardless of their membership in prescribed categories supersedes defendants' religious rights,” Kelly noted.

Citing the U.S. Supreme Court's 1990 decision in Employment Div., v. Smith, the Michigan high court stated that a law burdening a religious practice must be neutral and applied fairly to all. The U.S. Supreme Court noted in Smith that “the right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes conduct that his religious prescribes.”

The Michigan high court found the state civil rights law to be neutral and applied to all citizens fairly, and that it therefore superseded the Hoffiuses' religious-liberty rights.

“The statute contains no language singling out any religious group or practice,” Kelly wrote. “Even assuming that the defendants' beliefs are sincerely held and religiously based and that the Civil Rights Act imposes a burden on those beliefs, defendants' religious freedom rights have not been violated. A compelling state interest in eradicating discrimination in real estate transactions justifies the burden on their beliefs.

“When followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on the statutory schemes which are binding on others in that activity,” Kelly said.

Jordan Lorence, general counsel for Northstar, a Virginia-based conservative public- interest law firm, derided the Michigan high court ruling as sloppy.

“Basically the court lumps all forms of discrimination together and says the state has a compelling interest in eradicating them all,” Lorence said. “I think, practically, the real problem is racial discrimination. I doubt many landlords in Michigan or nationally have a policy of refusing to rent to unmarried couples. This is not the type of insidious discrimination that African-Americans face.”

The Hoffiuses' attorney called the Michigan ruling horrible and said he would file a petition to ask the court to reconsider the religious-liberty aspects of the case.

The Michigan Supreme Court does not often grant a rehearing of one of its own decisions, said Richard N. LaFlamme, the Jackson, Mich., attorney representing the Hoffiuses. “But if we can point out real flaws in their reasoning, then there is always potential for a rehearing being granted.”

If the Michigan Supreme Court refuses to rehear the case, LaFlamme said, it was highly probable he would seek a hearing of the case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The standard the Michigan court has used is so broad that no state law could be found to violate religious freedom,” he said. “The burden that the court's analysis puts on the free exercise of religion is almost insurmountable. Any constitutional scholar would have to come away from a reading of this opinion shaking his head. It is hard to believe that such an opinion could be written by a supreme court.”