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Rent Watch: Is atheism protected under religion fair housing rules?

Question: I own four single-family homes that I rent out. I am a strong Christian and would like to rent to others who have similar faith-based values.

Also, in my experience, renting to tenants who have a strong sense of faith has resulted in the best tenancy situations I have had. These tenants, whether Christian or Jewish or Muslim, have kept their homes very clean, been pleasant to deal with, and always paid their rent on time, in full. I believe this is because these tenants have some sort of God in their lives, even if it isn't the same God I know.

Recently, though, someone applied to rent one of my houses. In the course of meeting him to consider him as a tenant, I discovered he was an atheist. I have mixed feelings about renting to someone who doesn't believe in any God at all. My wife told me I should be careful because she thinks atheists are protected under the anti-discrimination laws. Is she correct?

Answer: The short answer to your question is yes, atheists are protected against discrimination under the fair housing laws.

Atheists are protected under the same protected category — religion — that protect people of faith.

The fair housing laws prohibit discrimination against a person or group of people based on their religious beliefs, even if that person's religious belief is that there is no God/higher being at all.

Your responsibility as a housing provider is to screen tenants based on their objective qualifications as tenants.

The second issue that your question raises is due to your general perception that people of faith are better tenants than nonreligious people. Despite your prior experiences, this generalization is no guarantee that a particular applicant will be a good tenant, and it might not be based on an accurate and complete picture.

We suggest you consider applicants as individuals, and assess their qualifications based on solid business criteria such as prior rental and credit history

Finally, although you do not indicate how the topic of religion came up in your conversation with this prospective tenant, we suggest you refrain from discussing personal matters unrelated to a person's qualifications to be a tenant, like religion.

You could find yourself facing a claim of religious discrimination in housing because you discussed this subject — something no landlord wants to experience.

Resources: http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/renters-right

Van Deursen is director of Dispute Resolution Programs for Project Sentinel, a Bay Area nonprofit. For more information, contact Project Sentinel at 1-888-324-7468, info@housing.org, visit www.housing.org or contact your attorney or local housing agency.

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