Once again the holiday season is upon us, and that means that many homeowners associations will be hosting parties and putting up lights and other decorations on the common areas. While there is nothing wrong with fully celebrating the holiday season, associations should take care to ensure that decorations and holiday displays do not give the impression that the community favors one particular religion over another. This could subject the association to discrimination claims under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and other federal and state fair housing laws.
As you are probably aware, fair housing laws protect residents against discrimination in housing. For homeowners associations, these laws are most often encountered in the context of disabled residents and requests for “reasonable accommodations”. Nevertheless, it is probably not a surprise that the FHA and other fair housing laws also prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion. You might ask how does this apply to exhibiting holiday decorations? Well, religious decorations and displays on the common areas may suggest to residents and guests that the community favors people who are of a particular religious affiliation. For example, extensive holiday decorations consisting of nativity scenes and crucifixes may suggest that Christians are favored in the community, or even that residents and visitors who are not Christian are not welcome.
The safest course of action is to put up only general holiday decorations on the common areas, such as lights and wreaths. Santa Claus images, candy-striped poles, and decorated trees are also considered acceptable, as are general statements such as happy holidays. Nevertheless, if the association’s membership demands to exhibit religious symbols such as nativity scenes, crucifixes, or Stars of David, they can be displayed. However, the association should take extra care to give equal treatment to all other religious affiliations. If there is mention of Christmas or use of Christian symbols in a display, there should also be equal reference to Hanukkah or other requested religious holidays.
An equally important point to remember is that FHA restrictions do not apply to religious displays by private homeowners. While common area religious displays should either be avoided or carefully monitored, residents of the community should be allowed, within the association’s rules and regulations, to display personal religious items in their homes and on their property.
Remember, the overall goal of the FHA is to allow members of community to feel comfortable about their religious affiliation. Common area decorations shouldn’t create a feeling of being left out. Open participation by all members of community is the best way to eliminate complaints and ensure a safe, happy and harmonious holiday season.