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Understanding Religious Discrimination in Housing

Under the Fair Housing Act, it's illegal for landlords across the country to discriminate against tenants based on their religious beliefs, affiliation, or level of observance.

The Fair Housing Act (FHA), a federal law that protects tenants against discrimination, includes a list of “protected classes”—that is, groups of people who all share a particular characteristic. One of the FHA’s seven protected classes is religion, making it illegal for landlords to select tenants based on their faith (or lack thereof). The law also gives renters peace of mind to practice a religion, if they wish, throughout their tenancy while feeling welcome in their building.

The FHA’s ban on religious discrimination includes all belief systems

Tenants are protected against religious discrimination whether they consider themselves to be members of a particular religion or none at all.1 The FHA’s ban extends to all religions and religious beliefs, no matter how established or popular they are. Landlords also cannot take legal action against tenants or penalize them in any way because they disapprove of their religious involvement or affiliation.

Religious discrimination is often subtle

Sometimes, landlords explicitly violate the FHA through obvious acts of discrimination. For example, a landlord who tells applicants that she does not rent to Muslims, or prefers Christian tenants, is clearly violating the FHA. However, religious discrimination often occurs in more subtle ways, such as when a landlord:

  • Prioritizes applicants on their waiting list based on religion
  • Sets different rents for tenants based on religion
  • Steers tenants of a certain religion to apartments in one area of their building
  • Prioritizes repair requests based on a tenant’s religion
  • Makes exceptions to rules or offers amenities only to tenants of certain religions
  • Considers a tenant’s religion before pursuing eviction

Although each of these examples involves a landlord who hasn’t outright refused to rent to someone because of their beliefs, these are all fair housing violations because the landlord is treating their tenants differently based on their religion.3

In one real-life example, tenants sued a New Jersey landlord who was offering Orthodox Jewish tenants lower rent and showing them better-maintained apartments with more amenities. The landlord settled the allegations of religious discrimination, agreeing to pay $170,000 to the tenants and $30,000 in a civil penalty.2

Landlords should be careful with holidays and religious decor

When the holiday season arrives, some landlords decorate the lobby and other parts of their building to celebrate the season. The FHA doesn’t bar landlords from doing this, but they should be careful to avoid emphasizing certain religions—or religion in general.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has suggested that landlords use “secularized terms or symbols” aimed at spreading holiday cheer rather than observing specific religions. For example, a tree decorated with lights is fine, while a prominently displayed nativity scene could run afoul of the FHA. Although there is some gray area, landlords who go beyond common holiday images and greetings—things like "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Easter"—and instead emphasize specific aspects of a certain religion are more likely be violating the FHA.4

Tenants are free to decorate their apartment any way they like, and not only during the holiday season. Landlords can't require or encourage decorations. They also can't discourage tenants from displaying items of religious significance in their apartments.

Tenants should also check state and local fair housing laws

Many states—and even cities—have passed their own fair housing laws that protect tenants from religious discrimination in housing. These additional laws offer tenants more options for pursuing justice, since a tenant can file a fair housing complaint on either the federal or state level.

Next steps

Religion is just one of the Fair Housing Act's seven protected classes. Learn more about the others, including national origin and disability.

[1] 42 U.S.C. § 3604

[2] U.S. v. Triple H. Realty, Case No. 3:06-CV-04703-FLW-TJB (D.N.J. 2009)

[2] 42 U.S.C. § 3604

[3] "HUD Memorandum on Guidance Regarding Advertisements Under § 804(c) of the Fair Housing Act" (1995)

The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.