You're a single woman, a Christian, living alone in a single-family house that you own; and you'd like a compatible roommate to share expenses and companionship. So you pin a notice to your church bulletin board:
"I am looking for a female Christian roommate."
Before you can find a roommate, a group of "community organizers" accuses you of "discrimination," your home state's Department of Civil Rights is investigating you, and your "case" is kicked upstairs to the federal government.
Tricia Rowe, of Alger Heights, Michigan, doesn't have to imagine such a thing: to her it really happened.
The good news is that the federal government has dismissed the complaint, finding "no reasonable cause" for action.
The bad news, of course, is that it happened at all.
Who Started It?
There is a certain amount of mystery involved in this case. In an effort to clear it up, we contacted the official "complainant," the Fair Housing Center of Western Michigan, based in Grand Rapids.
They flatly refused to provide any information about their role in the case, or to answer any questions about it whatsoever. So if at any point we misconstrue their actions or their motives, they have only themselves to blame.
The U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights were more forthcoming, and are our primary sources of information for this case.
But even they can't unravel the mystery of how the case arose in the first place. Only the Fair Housing Center knows that, and they're not talking.
A HUD document signed by Region V Director Barbara Knox, provided to us by HUD, states that "an unnamed individual brought the notice to the attention of" the Fair Housing Center, which "has not identified the individual."
The Michigan Department of Civil Rights couldn't discover the identity of the offended individual, either.
"I don't know if it was a church member who reported the notice to the Fair Housing Center in Grand Rapids," said Harold Core, spokesman for the state agency. "If there was someone else, we never got a name.
"We were completely swamped with calls about this case, and we weren't able to complete our investigation."
Who, besides the members of a church, sees the notices posted on the church's bulletin board?
Is it possible that a member of the Keystone Community Church reported a fellow member to the Fair Housing Center, instead of talking to the pastor, the church elders, or to Ms. Rowe? It seems highly unlikely. But if that's what happened, that church member ignored St. Paul's injunction in 1 Corinthians 6:1: "Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints?"
We were not able to get a response to our questions from anyone at Keystone. But then how could the pastor or an elder have known it, if one member of the congregation had done this to another?
The first Ms. Rowe heard about her supposed bias crime-again according to HUD-was a phone call from the Fair Housing Center: "Complainant conducted a telephone test to determine the identity of the poster of the advertisement."
We hope the person who started this was not a member of the church. But if not, would that mean that the Fair Housing Center had operatives creeping into churches, looking for something to complain about?
Why would they do that?
Possibly because their contract with the city of Grand Rapids sets a quota of 70 "bias complaints" to be filed by the Fair Housing Center per year.
Joel Oster, an Alliance Defense Fund attorney defending Tricia Rowe, provided us with a copy of that contract. It requires the Fair Housing Center to "conduct a minimum of 70 complaint based and non-complaint based housing tests to determine compliance with fair housing laws," for which the city is to pay the Fair Housing Center "an amount not to exceed Seventy Three Thousand Dollars ($73,000)."
Is it reasonable to interpret that as a quota?
"That is my general understanding," Oster said.
The Plaintiff's ‘Mission'
HUD describes the Fair Housing Center as "a private, non-profit organization whose mission is to eliminate practices of illegal housing discrimination and promote open, diverse communities through education and advocacy [emphasis added]."
Furthermore, according to HUD, the Fair Housing Center also "seeks damages in compensation for frustration of its mission and diversion of its resources."
HUD did not comment on this outrageous claim, but we will.
How in the world is it Ms. Rowe's fault that the Fair Housing Center indulged in a "diversion of its resources" by pursuing a baseless complaint against her? Would not mere common sense and common decency tell them that if you can't choose a roommate for the house that you own and occupy, your personal freedom doesn't amount to much at all?
Who are they to decide what anyone's community should look like? How "diverse" is diverse enough for them?
If seeking a compatible roommate constitutes "frustration of its mission," perhaps these ACORN wannabes ought to rethink their mission-or, better yet, give it up and turn to honest work instead.
The Public Outcry
The Michigan Deptartment of Civil Rights, said Harold Core, was obliged by federal law to field the complaint against Ms. Rowe. The federal Fair Housing Act, he said, "specifically covers advertising that indicates a preference based on religion. We took the case based on that. The only thing we did was to accept the complaint." In a press release he added, "at no time did we state or even imply a conclusion that the posting of this particular advertisement was indeed a violation of the law."
The public was not amused. When news of the case broke, "this office and specifically a member of our staff was subjected to a barrage of phone calls, emails, comments, posts, and blog entries ... many also included threats or other inappropriate personal attacks ... All threatening communications have been and will be forwarded to the appropriate law enforcement authorities," said the press release.
Can it be that the public will not tolerate this level of state interference in citizens' personal lives? This case was simply too hot for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and was sent on up to HUD before any "investigation" could be made. It should be mentioned that HUD took only a few days to dismiss the case.
Ultimately, said attorney Oster, "common sense prevailed." HUD would apparently agree. Says the HUD report:
"[I]n light of the facts provided and after assessing the unique context of the advertisement and the roommate relationship involved in this particular situation potentially involving the sharing of religious beliefs, the Department defers to Constitutional considerations [emphasis added] in reaching its conclusion."
It could not have been a very difficult conclusion for HUD to reach.
In a 1995 official memorandum on "Guidance Regarding Advertisements Under Sec. 804 of the Fair Housing Act" (available as a pdf file on the HUD website), HUD observed that "In some circumstances, the Advertising Guidelines ... have been interpreted (usually by persons outside of HUD) to extend the liability for advertisements to circumstances which are unreasonable." That certainly describes what the Fair Housing Center did in this case.
The memorandum notes on pages 2 and 3 that "shared living quarters" in a one-family home are usually exempt from the restrictions on advertising-in other words, the government cannot force you to take into your private home some person with whom you don't want to live.
Is Change Coming?
What is disquieting about this incident is that there are at large statist busybodies, like the Fair Housing Center of Western Michigan, who have anointed themselves with the "mission" of re-engineering the communities we live in-waging lawfare on peaceful, ordinary citizens according to their own vision of what a given community should be. While unanimous in their support of "separation of church and state"-a phrase which is nowhere in the U. S. Constitution-they think nothing of invading a church and scanning the bulletin board for any prospective "violation" they might seize upon to meet their quota.
We are glad that federal agencies like HUD can still find it in themselves to "defer" to the Constitution. But beyond merely dismissing the case, we would have liked to see the government take action against the Fair Housing Center for malicious mischief against a citizen and diverting HUD's resources with a frivolous complaint.
Although we sympathize with the staff of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, who should not have been threatened or abused, the loud public outcry against this case is heartening. The angry protests aroused may be a sign that America's spirit has not yet been broken by the government.
In the recent national elections, America's voters turned against big, costly, imperious and intrusive government-and it doesn't get more imperious or intrusive than telling you whom you can or cannot have as a roommate in your own house. Neither HUD nor the state government actually did this-but the Fair Housing Center thought they would.
Godly government is divided among spheres whose boundaries are to be respected: self-government, the family, the church, and finally the civil government. In the Bible, the civil government-under God, as is every sphere of government-is responsible for protecting its citizens from violence and crime and punishing evildoers. Neither the Bible nor the Constitution gives the state the authority to dabble in social engineering.
It may be that the national mood in America is becoming more receptive to the idea of godly government. Certainly the voters have cried out for smaller government. It may be that the soil for the seeds we plant, as Christian advocates and teachers, is more fertile now that it has been for years.
Let us sow God's Word in hope, and see what yield it brings.
- Lee Duigon
Lee is the author of the Bell Mountain Series of novels and a contributing editor for our Faith for All of Life magazine. Lee provides commentary on cultural trends and relevant issues to Christians, along with providing cogent book and media reviews.
Lee has his own blog at www.leeduigon.com.