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Plaintiff Loses in Religious Discrimination FHA Claim

By Robyn Hagan Cain on September 23, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In a case of biting that hand that fed her, a woman sued a free, drug-addiction recovery program under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), saying that the organization forced her to participate in religious services. In an opinion released on Monday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the claim failed as a matter of law.

The Boise Rescue Mission (BRM), originally incorporated as Christ's Gospel Mission, Inc., operates an "intensive, Christ-based residential recovery program for people with chemical dependency or alcoholism."

BRM requires all participants in its residential drug treatment program to be, or to desire to be, Christian. They must engage in a "wide range" of Christian activities, including worship services, Bible study, public and private prayer, religious singing, and public Bible reading. There is no fee for attending the drug treatment program.

The plaintiff, Janene Cowles, contacted the Boise Rescue Mission in November 2005 after she was charged with possession of methamphetamine. The judge presiding over her criminal proceeding sentenced her to a year in the county jail, but stated that if Cowles enrolled in the BRM program, the judge would order Cowles' release on probation pending her successful completion of the program. Otherwise, Cowles had to serve out her sentence.

In a letter to BRM, Cowles gave the impression that she understood the religious nature of Defendant's program, and that she desired to participate in the program because of its religious nature. BRM accepted Cowles into its drug treatment program in March 2006.

Cowles did not like the program, which, true to its description, was undeniably religious, and asked to transfer to a non-religious treatment facility.

When, five months after starting the program, Cowles confirmed to the BRM director that she was not Christian, the director contacted Cowles' probation officer to report that Cowles' could not complete the program. Cowles went back to jail, and eventually filed an FHA claim with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), alleging that BRM engaged in religious discrimination against her while she attended the treatment program.

HUD refused to act on Cowles' FHA claim, so she proceeded in federal court. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Cowles' claim because she did not have a protected right to participate in BRM's program. BRM, a religious organization, is allowed to give preference to persons of its religion, which it openly admits to doing. That practice does not violate the FHA.

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