Do Christians Discriminate?

A Christian landlord decides he cannot in good conscience provide habitation for a cohabiting but unmarried couple. Does he have the right to refuse to rent to them? A Massachusetts judge recently said yes. The case involved two brothers—Ronald and Paul Desilets—devout Catholics, who declined to rent one of their apartments to an unmarried couple. But like many states, Massachusetts has a statute prohibiting discrimination on the basis not only of race, sex, and religion but also of "marital status." The state attorney general charged the Desilets brothers with violating the statute. Lawyers from the American Family Association took the case for the Desilets brothers. They argued that the free exercise clause of the First Amendment gives Christians the right to refuse to rent to people whose lifestyle they regard as sinful—the right not to facilitate and perpetuate, on their own property, a behavior they regard as immoral. The Desilets case is not an isolated instance. Several similar cases have hit the courts in recent years—and most of them went against the Christian landlords. Gay rights activists are watching these cases closely, hoping to use anti-discrimination statutes to advance their own cause. At issue in these cases is the very meaning of discrimination. Anti-discrimination laws were originally based on the revolutionary idea, bequeathed to us by our nation's founders, that "all men are created equal"—and therefore should not be held back by conditions beyond their control: things like race, color, class, or ethnic background. The purpose of anti-discrimination laws was to provide a level playing field for all citizens. What these laws were not intended to do is protect people who flaunt society's dominant moral standards. But that's exactly how they're being used today—to protect people who engage in extramarital or homosexual relations. As law professor Richard Duncan puts it, civil rights laws are being used "to codify the values of the sexual revolution." This abuse of civil rights, Duncan warns, is "a Scud missile" aimed at the heart of religious freedom. It means that Christians who oppose sexual relations outside marriage are automatically exposed to charges of discrimination. Not only Christian landlords but also Christian schools and small-business owners—and eventually Christian churches and ministries—may be charged under these statutes. As Duncan argues, when the government includes sexual behavior in anti-discrimination laws, it "brand[s] many mainstream religious institutions and individuals as outlaws engaged in anti-social behavior." The Desilets' victory may well turn out to be a last hurrah for free exercise rights in housing. President Clinton has just nominated a lesbian activist as the nation's top fair-housing enforcer. Roberta Achtenberg says she favors adding homosexuals as a protected class under the federal Fair Housing Act. This is one nomination Christians ought to be speaking out against. I can think of no regulation more pernicious than one that would make outlaws of Americans who act on moral principles—on their own private property and in their own institutions.


Chuck Colson


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