FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — An elderly minister who had been conducting Bible studies in the community room of an apartment complex in Virginia has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as he has been ordered to cease holding the offerings in the building under threat of eviction.
According to the complaint, Ken Hauge and his wife, who live at The Evergreens at Smith Run in Fredericksburg, received a “Notice to Cure Default or Quit” surrounding complaints in regard to the Bible studies, as well as the viewing of weekly films in the club room.
“Landlord has received a series of complaints over the last several months regarding your conduct at the community,” it read. “Specifically, landlord has learned that you have hosted Bible study classes in the club room and have recently opened up these Bible study classes to non-residents of the community.”
“Landlord has received complaints from other residents that when they attempt to use the club room while you are hosting a Bible study class, they are being ‘harassed’ and pressured to join the Bible study class, making them feel so uncomfortable that they leave the club room to avoid confrontation,” the notice claimed.
It also alleged that Hauge’s presentation of a “religious” film each Sunday night in the club room, followed by a group discussion about the movie, has resulted in similar complaints. Some residents reportedly complained that Hauge was using the room for counseling sessions for both tenants and non-residents, and that it prevented them from using the area for activities that they had previously scheduled.
“[M]ultiple residents have stated to landlord that they feel uncomfortable using the club room due to the frequency of religious activities and the interactions with you and your guests (both residents and non-residents) when the complaining residents attempt to use the club room,” the notice outlined.
It pointed to various rules about the community, such as that “conducting any kind of business” in the building is prohibited, and that tenants cannot disturb the “comfort” or “convenience” of others. The notice further provided a list of events that are acceptable at the Evergreens, such as birthday parties, wedding receptions, potluck dinners and social activities—none of which included Bible studies.
Under threat of eviction, the notice demanded that Hauge submit a request form and deposit in advance of any activity to allow for time to determine whether that event is permissible, but also advised that Bible studies and “religious” movie screenings will not be allowed, classifying them as business operations.
“[C]ease conducting any business operations in the apartment and the community (including, without limitation, the club room) other than expressly permitted under your lease. Bible study class, religious movie screenings and counselings sessions are not permitted ‘at home’ business operations, nor permitted activities in the club room,” the notice read.
The Hauges deny the allegations and have retained representation from the First Liberty Institute, which after writing a letter to the owners of The Evergreens, filed a formal complaint with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Hauges contend that the Bible study was only for residents and was never open to the public, and that any claims they pressured others to join are false.
They state that, conversely, they were the ones who endured harassment from some upset residents who objected to the gathering.
“For example, this individual has confronted Hauge in the hallway and subjected him to profane rants concerning the Bible study. Similarly, some residents have attempted to disrupt Bible study meetings by causing noise in the community room,” the complaint reads.
“Other Bible study attendees have received disparaging comments concerning their religious beliefs while encountering these individuals in the hallways. Bible Study attendees felt intimidated by this behavior, concerned that they might similarly be confronted in the hallway and subjected to profane rants and disparaging comments,” it states.
The Hauges also note that they did go through the proper channels to apply for permission, but were repeatedly told to call the event a “book review” and not a Bible study, and after that matter was resolved, the offering was placed on the community calendar by staff.
The formal complaint also contends that the various films that are being viewed on Sunday evenings by a handful of residents cannot be considered religious, as they are general documentaries or travelogues, and any mention of religion is incidental.
“[T]he notice mischaracterizes Hauge and other residents’ habit of watching a documentary or travelogue in the community room as ‘religious movie screening,’ which it also considers a prohibited business activity. The handful of residents who gather to watch the programs on Sunday night do so informally, desiring simply to share a casual activity with others in order to fill an otherwise empty evening,” it states.
The Hauges further argue that they have never held any counseling sessions despite the allegations in the notice. And while they have held mid-week Bible studies for residents and have offered documentaries in the club room on Sunday nights, neither of those events can be considered business activity.
“Primarily, the notice fabricates a lease violation by mischaracterizing Hauge’s Bible study and religious practice as a business activity prohibited in either the community room or the apartment. Hauge may be a minister by profession, but he led the Bible study in his personal capacity and on his own time,” the complaint reads. “Such studies are a common practice among Christians, who often gather outside of their churches to study the Bible and develop friendships in their spare time.”
The filing argues that while the notice suggests that the Bible study was unauthorized, The Evergreens “have been aware of the Bible study for approximately a year and a half, even approving its community room use and listing it on the resident calendar for a time.”
The Hauges believe that leadership at The Evergreens is rather listening to hostile voices of complaint without looking into whether there is any validity to the claims, and are themselves unfairly targeting the practice of religion as its new community room policy bans any use for “religious services or for other religious purposes.”
“For fear of losing their home, the Hauges complied with the notice and policy by ceasing to hold Bible study meetings pending resolution of this matter. We respectfully request that the department investigate … and take all appropriate action,” the letter reads.
“It is both shameful and illegal to threaten elderly residents with eviction simply for holding a Bible study,” Lea Patterson, associate counsel for First Liberty Institute, said in a press release. “Treating residents unequally simply out of hostility to religion violates federal law and taints Virginia’s long history of religious freedom.”
The Community Realty Company, which owns The Evergreens, told reporters following the Hauge’s filing that the minister and his wife have not “been denied the right to practice their religion in their apartment, nor have any other of the residents.”