• New federal regulations will affect the rental activities of some churches. Many churches have purchased neighboring properties to accommodate future expansion. Such properties typically are rented out prior to their destruction or utilization for church purposes. Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which took effect on March 12, 1989, prohibits discrimination in the sale or rental of dwellings because of handicap or the existence of one or more children under the age of 18. The law contains a number of exemptions, including the following: (1) a religious organization (or any nonprofit organization operated or controlled by a religious organization) may limit the sale, rental, or occupancy of dwellings which it owns or operates for non-commercial purposes to persons of the same religion, unless membership in the religion is restricted because of race, color, or national origin; (2) the sale or rental of any single family house by an owner if the owner does not own more than three single family houses and the house is sold or rented without the use of a real estate broker; (3) the sale or rental of rooms or units in dwellings containing living quarters occupied (or intended to be occupied) by no more than four families, if the owner actually maintains and occupies one of the units as his or her residence. In some cases, housing designed to be occupied by older persons (age 62, and in some cases 55) is exempt from the ban on discrimination against families with children under the age of 18. If your church owns residential or rental property that is not covered by any of the exemptions, the church cannot discriminate in the sale or rental of the property on the basis of handicap or the existence of one or more children under the age of 18. Pregnant women are protected by the law. “Handicap” is defined broadly to include “a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits … major life activities.” This definition includes (according to the regulations interpreting the law) alcoholism and AIDS. The new law also makes it illegal for a property owner to refuse to permit a handicapped tenant from making “reasonable modifications” at his or her own expense of the rental premises if such modifications are necessary to enable the tenant to fully enjoy the property. The owner may, when it is “reasonable to do so,” condition permission for a modification on the tenant agreeing to restore the interior of the premises to the condition that existed before the modification. Churches that own non-exempt residential or rental properties should be familiar with these new rules, and should understand that a variety of legal remedies are available to persons and organizations that violate the law.
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