By Deborah Goonan
A couple of my readers forwarded the link to this story about Velda Rose Estates Homeowners’ Association in Mesa, Arizona. It seems that suddenly it’s against the rules for religiously affiliated groups to gather in the Association’s community center.
Here’s the video coverage, courtesy of KPHO in Pheonix:
HOA says ‘bah humbug’ to homeowner’s holiday project
Homeowner Ferne Skidmore said the HOA is denying her group access to the commonly-owned clubhouse, where they have been making Christmas stockings for underprivileged children for several years. The HOA Board has decided that their charitable activity is religious in nature, and, since the HOA claims there’s a rule against using the community center for religious gatherings, the women are no longer permitted to use the facilities to work on their holiday project.
Skidmore has filed an “appeal to the state agency that regulates HOA disputes – the Arizona Department of Fire, Building and Life Safety.” Arizona is one of the few states that has created an agency to help settle certain disputes between homeowners and their Association, for a relatively low filing fee. This year that fee is $550. That’s far less expensive than filing a suit in civil court.
Skidmore maintains that the Christmas Stocking Project is not religiously affiliated, and therefore the group should be allowed to continue using the clubhouse for their activity.
But…even if Skidmore and her neighbors were gathering for religious activity – let’s say a Bible Study group – why should the Association be allowed to deny their First Amendment rights? The First Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees five freedoms, including freedom of Speech, freedom of Religion, freedom of Assembly, freedom of the Press, and freedom to Petition. Seems to me that the HOA is violating rights to freedom of both Assembly and Religion.
For the sake of argument, is the Association allowing other homeowner groups to gather for recreational purposes such as card games or Bingo? If so, then at the very least it seems the HOA is engaging in Selective Enforcement.
Could the Association get away with denying access to the clubhouse for people of a certain race? Certainly not. But for some reason, people who might want to engage in activity related to their religious beliefs is forbidden? Why would any American find that acceptable?
Some HOA industry experts will insist that, because they are private organizations, Association-Governed Residential Communities can “reasonably” restrict rights – i.e., the Bill of Rights Need Not Apply. But, as I have noted in previous blogs, more recently, the Supreme Court of New Jersey has affirmed that a resident does not give up Constitutional rights when choosing to live in community with private Homeowners’ Association.
So don’t automatically accept your Association’s assertion that you “give up” your rights whenever you happen to be within the boundaries of your community. Recent case law has tilted in favor of upholding First Amendment rights for individual homeowners in HOAs, and has raised the bar on what restrictions are considered reasonable. Remember, we have to defend our rights if we want to keep them vibrant and meaningful for future generations.