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Can Religious RE Advertising Violate Fair Housing Laws?

Posted by Editor on August 30, 2019
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A Richmond-area real estate agent is suing the Virginia Real Estate Board after being told she could not include Christian messages on her professional website and emails because of fair housing laws.

In a lawsuit filed in Richmond Circuit Court, Hadassah Carter claims the anti-discrimination policy violated her rights to religious expression.

Though she could have removed the material and continued working under extra scrutiny, Carter says the state’s action led her to resign from the Chesterfield County real estate agency where she worked. State records show Carter’s real estate license is still active, but the suit says she “fears making religious statements in connection with her realty practice” because the board could take further disciplinary action.

Carter filed the suit in coordination with the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative group affiliated with Regent University in Virginia Beach. In a blog post, ACLJ attorney and commentator Jordan Sekulow said it was the state, not a person seeking housing, who complained about Carter’s activity to the Virginia Fair Housing Office.

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“No one should have to justify their free speech or their religion to a regulatory body,” Sekulow wrote. “To threaten someone’s job because they express their faith makes free speech unfree.”

The state has not yet responded to the suit, which was filed Wednesday. A spokeswoman for the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation declined to comment. Attempts to reach Carter on Friday were unsuccessful.

In a complaint filed against Carter in 2017, regulators took issue with Carter’s email signature, which read: “For Faith and Freedom, Jesus Loves You, and with God All things are possible…”

The complaint also raised concerns about language on Carter’s website, including a personal statement in which she called real estate her “ministry,” said “God comes first and equal to him, my Clients come first,” and closed with the phrase “In God We Trust.” The site also included a Bible verse, John 3:16.

The Real Estate Board said Carter was publishing material “associated with Christianity, indicating a preference or limitation based on religion, in violation of the Virginia Fair Housing Law.”

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Carter’s lawsuit says the messages were “a means of expressing her faith” rather than a signal she favored a particular religion in her job.

State and federal fair housing laws prohibit discrimination based on such features as race, religion, national origin, sex or family status, and bar landlords and property sellers from favoring some demographic groups at the expense of others.

Though the complaint was never fully adjudicated, it led to a 2018 conciliation agreement between the Real Estate Board and Carter’s employer, Keller Williams Midlothian, according to documents filed in court.

The agreement stipulated that Keller Williams would enforce a policy barring religious messages in professional communications, including reviewing a “random sample” of its agents’ websites, email signatures and advertisements until 2023. The agreement said the sample “shall always include” Carter.

The suit says the Real Estate Board filed its complaint shortly after Carter emailed the board about a business matter.

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Though Carter did not appear to publish any housing ads catering only to Christians, Virginia housing law says, “the use of words or symbols associated with a particular religion, national origin, sex or race” are assumed to be evidence of an “illegal preference.”

The lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of that assumption, arguing the policy takes an unnecessarily restrictive approach to stopping housing discrimination.

“Ms. Carter has a religiously diverse client base that includes Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Catholics and Evangelical Christians,” says the suit, which seeks an injunction against the state preventing further restrictions on religious content.

© Copyright 2019, Culpeper Star-Exponent, Culpeper, VA, Graham Moomaw

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