A landlord who went back on his rental agreement with two men from Yellowknife, Canada, after finding out they were a couple has been ordered to pay $13,400 by a human rights adjudicator ruling that the landlord’s claim he “feared God’s wrath” and was therefore acting within his religious rights by discriminating against the couple did not overrule his legal obligations to them as set forth in the rental agreement.
Religious Rights Verses Legal Obligations
Scott Robertson and Richard Anthony filed a complaint with the Northwest Territories Human Rights Commission in June, claiming they were discriminated against by their former landlord, William Goertzen, because of their sexual orientation.
Goertzen, a Baptist, didn’t deny the charge, but instead offered that such discrimination was his right under his religious beliefs.
From the Montreal Gazette:
Human-rights adjudicator James Posynick this month ordered William Goertzen of Yellowknife to pay $6,500 each to Scott Robertson and [Richard Anthony], ruling the landlord had discriminated.
According to the decision, Goertzen had originally agreed to let the two move into the apartment, receiving a deposit cheque of $1,125, but upon hearing they were in a long-term same-sex relationship he said he deemed any agreement void, fearing revenge from “his Lord.”
Before the two could appeal Goertzen’s decision he had posted a new ad seeking to rent the apartment.
During the June hearing, the gay couple claimed their rights had clearly been infringed, detailing how, because Goertzen failed to honor their signed tenancy agreement, they had suffered loss of earnings and were forced to sleep at a friend’s home until they were able to make other arrangements.
Goertzen offered an appeal to specific biblical passages he said proved he would receive God’s wrath for letting the apartment to a gay couple because the Bible says “that same-sex relationships are ‘unnatural and against nature’” and, “‘[it] warns against being associated with such wickedness’”.
When asked whether he had an obligation to fulfill the requirements of the rental agreement, Goertzen remained defiant:
Goertzen read Bible passages as he attempted to justify not honouring the lease with Robertson and Anthony. He argued his religious beliefs are protected by Canadian law.
“I’d have to ask where are my rights … why can I not stand on my beliefs and what I believe in?” Goertzen told CBC News in July.
“They might think it’s discrimination against them, but I’m losing my beliefs and there’s definitely my religious convictions.” — CBC News
However, the panel disagreed that an appeal to religious beliefs covered Goertzen’s actions, especially his refusal to deal with the couple and give them an appropriate amount of time to find other accommodation.
For that argument to be reasonable, Posynick wrote, Goertzen should have shown a willingness to express his concerns, apologize and ensure the couple was able to find alternative arrangements. Instead, Goertzen aggravated the case by keeping the damage deposit. He also began advertising the apartment two days later, which “betrays the suggestion that he gave any thought to engaging in a dialogue or discussion.”
“Mr. Goertzen never returned the two weeks rent paid by the complainants until ordered by a rental officer,” Posynick wrote. “There was no attempt to accommodate the complainants in this case whatsoever.”
On his decision to reward for injuries and punitive damages, Posynick said Goertzen’s actions may not necessarily have been malicious, but that he “certainly intended to discriminate” against the couple.
The adjudicator added, “While I accept [Goertzen's] evidence that he believed that he would incur serious present and future harm if he rented his home to a same-sex couple I found nothing in the evidence, including in the Bible and Encyclopedia excerpts he filed, to the effect that he would suffer such harm if he did anything to help, that is, to accommodate the complainants[.]“
In this decision, Posynick draws a distinction between Goertzen’s protected rights of freedom of religion and expression, and the landlord’s failure to fulfill the obligations of the tenancy agreement he had freely entered into.
In so doing, the adjudicator clearly highlights that, while protecting freedom of religion and expression is a concern, religious freedom is not a carte blanche that supersedes all else, and, as such, must be carefully balanced.
Housing Discrimination a Widespread Problem for LGBTs
While this case occurred in Canada, discrimination in the housing and rental sector is a widespread issue for LGBTs.
The International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission has a specific section on this topic, detailing discrimination from across the globe, including in Kenya where two gay men were forced to relocate five times after facing threats and physical violence by groups of neighbors, and how in Latin America, transgender people face “severe destitution” because landlords are free to refuse services once they become aware of an applicant’s gender expression/identity, something which is also true in many ares of the United States.
It is also worth noting that, while this case dealt with a relatively young couple, older LGBTs are especially vulnerable to housing and rental related discrimination.
The following is from an interview with Lindsay River as conducted by the British charity Stonewall. River, a project coordinator trying to improve services for older gay and lesbian people, mainly refers to the situation in London, England, but her comments have wider resonance:
I would say people are experiencing discrimination in many areas but housing is one of the most important,” River says. “A lot of people don’t want their neighbours to know that they are gay because they feel too vulnerable, and fear harassment.”
“Older lesbians and gay men who lose some of their mobility may find it harder to keep in contact with lesbian and gay friends, increasing greatly their risk of isolation.”
It is not only neighbours or flatmates who make housing problematic for gay people. River tells of her own experiences: “I have not always been made welcome at tenants meetings. I do go there, in my housing co-operative. But I don’t feel particularly welcome.”
The problem is not confined inside four walls. Some residential areas are worse than others, according to Lindsay River. In the Borough of Hackney, for example, there are some areas where gay people feel unsafe. “It’s almost like living in a no-go area. But in other parts of Hackney, like Stoke-Newington where I live, there are many cafes where lesbians and gay men feel very welcome.”
The discrimination older same-sex couples face in the U.S. housing sector is further compounded by the disadvantages they suffer in being denied federal spousal and survivor benefits, to name but a few, under the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
For more information on LGBT elder homeowner issues in the U.S., please click here.
Read more: civil rights, fair housing act, gay rights, gender identity discrimination, housing discrimination, housing non discrimination, hud, lgbt rights, nondiscrimination, sexual orientation discrimination
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