Regulating Religious Displays: A Trap for the Unwary

Regulating Religious Displays: A Trap for the Unwary

The holiday season brings with it a flurry of activity. From wish lists and shopping lists to recipes and reservations, this time of year often has the effect of raising spirits more than any other. And, while people express their holiday spirit in different ways, many choose to do so by decorating their homes; inside and out.

Yet, despite the apparent innocence of such an endeavor, the manner in which people choose to decorate the outside of their homes has caused countless “neighborly” disputes among condominium residents. Seemingly trivial protestations that a neighbor’s holiday lights are too bright, that the faux snow is too gaudy, or that nine reindeer are simply too much, can quickly turn serious.

To avoid such a situation, condominium associations often enact either rules banning decorations outright or rules restricting the manner in which owners may decorate the outside of their units. Such use restrictions are generally permissible as long as they are authorized by the condominium’s documents, are enacted for a legitimate purpose, and are enforced fairly and uniformly.

However, in some states, there is a type of decoration that condominium associations cannot ban: religious objects. For example, an Illinois statute provides that “no rule or regulation shall prohibit any reasonable accommodation for religious practices, including the attachment of religiously mandated objects to the front-door area of a condominium unit.”

In Florida, an association may not refuse a reasonable request for permission to attach a religious object on the mantel or frame of a unit owner’s door. The statute provides that unit owners are limited to a single object “not to exceed 3 inches wide, 6 inches high and 1.5 inches deep.”

It is important to note that the protection afforded by these statutes applies all year long. Thus, in addition to protecting the display of religious objects during the holiday season, they also protect their display throughout the year.

These laws represent a relatively new initiative to protect the right of condominium unit owners to decorate their doors or entranceways with religious symbols. The Illinois statute became effective January 1, 2007; the Florida statute became effective October 1, 2008. On September 17, 2008, the Freedom of Religious Expression in the Home Act of 2008 was introduced as a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives. Moreover, some municipalities, such as Chicago, have enacted their own protections in this regard. Condominium association boards should consider the possibility that these developments may indicate a trend that other state and municipal governments may soon follow.

When confronted with a request to display a religious symbol under these laws, condominium boards should proceed cautiously. Although the spirit and intent of these laws seem clear enough, significant room for interpretation and debate remain as to precisely what type of accommodation is required.

For example, unlike Florida’s statute, the Illinois statute does not specify how big the decoration may be. Other than providing that “reasonable” requests must be permitted, the statute fails to provide any specifications. Unfortunately, sensible minds can differ as to what qualifies as reasonable. Thus, disputes in this context are possible, if not likely.

Perhaps the only thing more difficult than defining reasonableness is defining religion. The intellectuals sitting on the United States Supreme Court over the years have found few questions more difficult to answer. And, in those instances where an attempt at a definition was made, never has universal agreement been achieved. It is unlikely that a condominium board will fare any better, so a broad, inclusive approach should be considered.

Moreover, it would be incorrect for a condominium board to assume that these laws only protect religious symbols, such as mezuzot or crucifixes, which are linked to “major” religions. Since these laws make no such distinction, neither may a condominium board. If it qualifies as a religious symbol, regardless of a board member’s personal belief, then a unit owner is entitled to display it. In this context, the majority does not rule.

Needless to say, few topics garner as much passion as religion. People will go to great lengths to defend their religious beliefs and their right to display such beliefs. An association’s failure to abide by these laws may come at a price, and the price of intolerance in this regard won’t be cheap.

Thus, before taking any action to prohibit a unit owner from displaying a religious symbol, even if a condominium’s documents authorize such a restriction, professional counsel should be sought to ensure compliance with any applicable statutes or ordinances.