California Joins States Prohibiting Restrictions on Religious Displays
This week, we look at new California legislation that explicitly bars community associations from restricting owners’ displays of religious items on their entry doors and frames, easing tensions for boards that have been put between a rock (observing religious freedoms) and a hard place (complying with governing documents).
Several other states have already seen the need for such statutes. How does the need arise? In California, at least, it goes back to the state law that deems a unit’s exterior doors, door frames, and hardware exclusive use common areas, unless the declarations provide otherwise.
“So an association could say you can’t put personal items in the common areas, which would include individual entryways,” says Sandra Gottlieb, a founding partner of California homeowner association law firm SwedelsonGottlieb. An owner might complain that a mezuzah or other religious display on a neighbor’s door violates the rule, putting the board in a thorny position.
“We know that under the fair housing laws and the First Amendment, you can’t discriminate based on religion,” Gottlieb says, “but boards were stuck with not being able to give common area to an owner for a display.” Under California law, a board generally can’t grant exclusive use of any portion of the common area to an owner without at least 67% of the voting interests agreeing.
If you’ve been fortunate enough to avoid such problems with your clients, don’t doubt they can arise. “Over the years I’ve been practicing, I’ve seen crazy, scary, and dangerous things occur in response to one owner saying they’re exercising their religion by wanting to have an ornament that reflects the practice of their religion,” Gottlieb says.
To learn more about the laws against religious display restrictions, including some important exceptions, read our new article Laws Bar Rules Against Religious Displays.