Friday, October 22, 2010

Law Forces Atheist to have Christian Roommate?

I'm usually opposed to everything the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) does, but here's an interesting case where I find myself 100% on the side of the Christians.

How would an atheist feel if he or she was forced by law to accept an evangelical Christian roommate?

The actual case is the reverse, a Christian woman who advertised for a Christian roommate. But the law cuts both ways, so if this woman loses it would apply to theists and nontheists alike.

The woman posted a notice on her church bulletin board saying, "I am looking for a Christian roommate." Next thing you know, she was the target of a lawsuit by a private group called the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan. They claimed the Christian woman was violating the US Fair Housing Civil Rights Act of 1968, which prohibits discrimination based on race, gender and religion.

The most interesting cases in law are where two different rights collide. For example, you have a right to free speech and I have a right to privacy; what happens when you want to talk about my private life? The boundaries in these cases are always vague. There is no clear line, and it takes years of court decisions to clarify the balance of the conflicting rights.

Most people in America don't realize that discrimination is actually legal in most situations. I'm perfectly free to ban anyone from my home for any reason. I can be a racial, religious sexist bigot all at the same time and only allow white male atheists in my home, and that's my choice. The law has nothing to say about it. (My family might, though... in case there's any doubt, I am none of these things!)

Discrimination is only covered by the law in certain very specific activities: employment, government and business. If you are hiring, conducting business or running the government, you have to treat everyone equally. Beyond that, you can be a jerk.

But what happens when the two collide? When you rent out a room in your house, are you a landlord or are you choosing the people with whom you will associate? A landlord renting a house is prohibited from discriminating, but what about someone renting a room in that same house?

I know which side of this question I'm on. In our homes, we should be able to choose. The obvious case is a female looking for a roommate in a small house with one bathroom. It's completely reasonable to think she'd be uncomfortable with a male roommate, and vice versa. But beyond these practical considerations, I believe that we have a right to discriminate in our own homes. When it comes to renting a room, our rights to freedom of association should prevail over anti-discrimination laws.

I sympathize with the Christian woman who wanted a Christian roommate. I frankly would not want an evangelical Christian sharing my home. It wouldn't be a place where I (or my roommate) could relax peacefully. A roommate doesn't just share the physical space, he/she also become your friend, sort of a surrogate family. If we're forced to take people in that we just don't like – even if our motives are despicable – we lose an important freedom.

We can protect one another from the consequences of bigotry by passing anti-discrimination laws. We can teach our kids tolerance and respect for their fellow humans. But in the end, each of us has a right to be a jerk, and to associate with whomever we please. Anti-discrimination laws collide with my right of association at my front door.



    According to Craigslist FAQ, in this situation the Mr. A can't post an advertisement saying "Atheist looking for rommate..." or "Looking for an atheist roommate". However, it seems Mr. A can discriminate when deciding which prospective person will be a roommate. (Hint: Prominently display an atheist artifact in the premises).

    Regarding the male/female roommate thing; it is totally legal to say you want a female (male) roommate when you are a female (male) who is going to share the premises.

  2. The Federal Government often invokes the Commerce clause (Article I, Section 8, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution) to allow them jurisdiction of otherwise private discriminatory matters. This is the basis for the Non-Discrimination laws that were late enacted. The Commerce clause gives Congress the authority to regulate commerce between the States. Throughout American history it has been used very broadly at times, and at other times narrowly. For example, in the 50's and 60's it was used to force restaurants to serve black people who were being denied service. The argument was that the restaurants were active in the flow of commerce within States and between them, and therefore were not entitled to practice discrimination. The same is true of hotels/inns, which are businesses in the flow of commerce as well. It's a much bigger stretch to make that apply to an individual looking for a roommate. I would imagine that the courts would not choose to extend the Commerce clause to this extent, and that the claim will fail in court. However, it can be a useful mechanism for the Federal Government to step in and correct an injustice where the State Governments do not.

  3. Alyssa -- thanks for the detailed explanation.

    If I'm not mistaken, this is the same article that the Feds have used to criminalize the use of marijuana and other recreational drugs. Somehow, a person who grows some pot and smokes it at home is engaging in interstate commerce!

    There are really two questions: What do we as a society want, and what does the Constitution allow? Too many people mix these two concepts.


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