The board of a Florida residential condominium is accused of religious discrimination for prohibiting prayers and religious meetings in its social rooms.
The Cambridge House in Port Charlotte violated the Fair Housing Act when the board voted to forbid religious meetings in the common rooms, according to a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The March 6 complaint was filed on behalf of resident Donna Dunbar against Cambridge House of Port Charlotte — a Condominium Inc. and its management company, The Gateway Group Inc. State law violations also are alleged.
Dunbar, a lay minister in the Seventh Day Adventist Church, formerly led a women’s Bible study group with about 10 women, including Cambridge House residents and guests, in a common room for two hours on Monday mornings, according to the complaint.
The condo board voted Feb. 6 to prohibit prayers, religious services and religious meetings in common areas.
Gateway Management, which was hired by Cambridge House, declined to comment.
“This really is textbook housing discrimination,” said Adam Foslid, a Greenberg Traurig shareholder in Miami who filed the HUD complaint. “Under the housing section, it literally gives these examples as per se housing discrimination.”
Foslid and First Liberty Institute, a Texas-based legal organization that works on religious freedom cases, are representing Dunbar.
The discrimination claim alleges Dunbar and others were prohibited from holding religious meetings in the common room where other residents were allowed to hold secular gatherings, according to the complaint.
“In effect, the resolution manifests profound hostility to Christians, and indeed all religious residents, and discriminates against any resident who wishes to express their faith beyond the walls of their private residence,” according to the complaint.
The state law claims stem from allegations that the board didn’t included the resolution in the meeting agenda and didn’t inform unit owners that the proposal was coming up for a vote, according to the complaint.
Dunbar and her Bible study group faced discrimination before the condo prohibited the meetings, according to the complaint.
The board required Dunbar to get insurance to hold the Bible study meetings even though it didn’t ask other groups holding movie and game nights to get insurance, the complaint alleges.
After the board vote, religious displays at Cambridge House were removed, the complaint said. Gateway Management personnel removed a St. Francis of Assisi fountain and statue and wrote residents asking them to remove crosses from their doors, according to the complaint. Also, a sign reading, ‘Any and all Christian music is banned!’ was posted on an organ in the lobby.
Since the resolution was adopted, Dunbar has been hosting the Bible studies in her 919-square-foot unit.
Roberto Blanch, a shareholder with Siegfried, Rivera, Hyman, Lerner, De La Torre, Mars & Sobel in Coral Gables, said there have been similar cases in Florida, but this one is slightly different.
Other cases usually allege violations under condo association regulations or the state condominium act, but this case alleges a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act, said Blanch, who focuses on community association law.
“There have been some Florida cases on similar rules, and the appellate courts have upheld the rules, but in this particular case the attorney is alleging that it is a violation under Fair Housing Act provisions — and not necessarily a violation of the condominium act,” he said. “It would be interesting to see … whether they (federal government) consider it to be a violation of the Fair Housing Act and how that may affect condominium associations.”