A Virginia senior living facility is facing a federal lawsuit after threatening to evict a retired Lutheran pastor and his wife for leading a Bible study in their own apartment.
On Wednesday, attorneys with the First Liberty Institute and Hunton Andrews Kurth, LLP filed the lawsuit against The Evergreens at Smith Run in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and its parent company, Community Realty Company, alleging religious discrimination in housing by the apartment's management.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Ken and Liv Hauge, two Evergreens residents who are in their mid-80s who were threatened with eviction by the company last year for hosting a small Bible study in their living room.
The lawsuit claims that CRC and the Evergreens management discriminated against the Hauges and others on the basis of religion by first banning all residents from publicly praying before their meals. They also prohibited the Hauges from hosting the Bible study anywhere at The Evergreens, including their own apartment under the threat of eviction.
Management refused to allow Hauge to call the event a “Bible study,” requiring instead that he call it a “book review.”
"The management company's hostility to religious residents violates federal law and taints Virginia's long history of religious freedom," said Lea Patterson, associate counsel for First Liberty, in a statement to The Christian Post. "We're asking the court to hold the management company accountable for violating the Hauges' right to exercise their faith in their home and to ensure no other residents have to suffer through what the Hauges have endured."
The controversy began in July 2018, when the Hauges received a "Notice to Cure Default or Quit" letter from their landlord, informing them that they had to cease holding the Bible study or face eviction.
According to the notice, their Bible study "has caused, and continues to cause, serious and substantial disturbances with other residents in the community."
These included allegations that the weekly study involved "operating an unauthorized business" and "interfering with other residents' use of the community facilities."
"Landlord has received a series of complaints over the past several months regarding your conduct at the community," read the notice. "Landlord has also learned that you show religious films on Sunday evenings, followed by a group discussion on the religious film. This activity has resulted in complaints to Landlord similar to those related to the Bible study class."
In the notice, management cited several complaints from other residents who claim they were harassed and pressured to join and felt uncomfortable using the community room.
But Kenneth Hauge said such claims were unfounded: “This was a mixed group. Protestants of all stripes and Roman Catholics and I don’t know who else. We didn’t make that a point. It was open to anybody that wanted to participate and was welcome to do so,” he explained to Fox5.
Attorneys with First Liberty Institute initially sent a demand letter detailing how CRC and the Evergreens’ actions constitute religious discrimination in housing, a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act.
Then, First Liberty attorneys filed a formal complaint to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, asking them to investigate CRC for religious discrimination. An investigation is ongoing.
The Hauges are now paying month-to-month rent in their senior living apartment in Fredericksburg since the Evergreens at Smith Run refused to renew their lease, according to Fox5.
“It’s been unnerving, especially with the possibility of being evicted because of our free expression of our beliefs, it’s been very upsetting,” Kenneth Hauge said.
The company has 21 days to respond to the federal lawsuit. In the meantime, the Hauges told Fox they remain hopeful they can continue to live in their home and pray with some of the other residents.
“It seems to me so obvious why people should be free to express their basic convictions, their basic understanding of philosophical, theological, culturally without any limitations,” Kenneth Hauge said. “I believe we are guaranteed that right by law and I think that’s enough reason to stand our ground on it.”