News - May 1996

CA Sup. Court Rejects Religious Defense To Laws Barring Housing

LOS ANGELES -- Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund hailed an April 9 decision by the California Supreme Court in Smith v. Fair Employment and Housing Commission rejecting a landlord's claim that state civil rights laws violated her rights to free exercise of religion.

The court ruled that state laws forbidding housing discrimination based on marital status may be enforced against a landlord who told an unmarried couple that she would not rent them a vacant apartment in the complexes she owns but does not live, based on the landlord's belief that sex outside of marriage, and "facilitating" such sex, is sinful.

"While this case involved a heterosexual couple, the court's decision is particularly important to lesbians and gay men," said Clyde Wadsworth, a cooperating attorney for Lambda from San Francisco who was the principal author of an amicus brief filed in the case on behalf of Lambda, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and Lawyers for Human Rights - the Lesbian and Gay Bar Association of Los Angeles. "Similar religious freedom claims have been raised across the country in attempts to justify housing and employment discrimination against lesbians and gay men, despite state and local laws forbidding such discrimination. The court's ruling makes clear that the state has no interest in sanctioning housing discrimination, even if purportedly rooted in religion."

Lambda Supervising Attorney Jon W. Davidson agreed: "A ruling in the landlord's favor would have given California's property owners a license to discriminate against lesbians, gay men, and others who could not conform to a landlord's religious views, no matter how discriminatory those views might be. It was not long ago that African-Americans were denied housing and education based on a religious belief that integration was against God's plan. The California Supreme Court's ruling is a landmark in affirming the importance of anti-discrimination laws and refusing to open the Pandora's box of religious-based exemptions to such laws."

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