FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — A retired Lutheran minister and his wife have sued the owners and management of a Virginia apartment complex for threatening them with eviction following complaints over his regular Bible study in the community room, as well as other allegations that he denies.
According to the legal challenge, Ken Hauge and his wife Liv moved into The Evergreens at Smith Run in Fredericksburg in January 2017 and shortly thereafter “received unsolicited requests from other residents to lead a non-denominational Bible Study for interested residents on Wednesday evenings.”
Around this same time, Community Manager Tanita Kearse reportedly instituted a policy prohibiting residents from audibly saying grace over their meals because she believed that many were opposed to the practice. Hauge says that he was also told that any flyers advertising the Bible study should rather be listed as a “book review.”
After a relative of one of the Bible study attendees contacted Property Manager Spencer Fried about her concerns, the matter was reversed. However, it wasn’t long until some residents began to take issue with the study, allegedly going off on “profane rants” at Hauge and other participants.
Hauge went to Kearse about the matter, but so did the complainants, claiming that Hauge was showing religious films in the community room on Sunday nights. Hauge states that the videos were documentaries and travelogues, and not religious presentations.
Another individual complained that Hauge was engaging in “pastoral counseling” in the card room, but Hauge states that he had an impromptu talk with a resident for about 15-20 minutes after the person asked for help, and then left.
Hauge soon received a “Notice to Cure Default or Quit” surrounding the allegations.
“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 said that “multiple residents” had reported “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 letter 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. It 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,” it read.
Hauge contends that if management had investigated the harassment complaints of those in the Bible study, they would have found that there was no truth to the allegations in the notice.
The retired minister stopped offering any Bible studies as a result of the threat, and last June, learned that a new policy had been instituted at the apartment complex stating that the community room could not be used for political or “religious services” or “other religious purposes” as it would be “inappropriate.” His lease has yet to be renewed.
He lodged a complaint last year with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and now has also filed a lawsuit in seeking legal intervention. The complaint alleges violations of the federal Fair Housing Act and the Virginia Fair Housing Law, and requests that The Evergreens be ordered to rescind the notice and modify its policy prohibiting “religious services” in the community room.
“The management company’s hostility to religious residents violates federal law and taints Virginia’s long history of religious freedom,” Lea Patterson, associate counsel for First Liberty, which is representing Hauge, said in a statement. “We’re asking the court to hold the management company accountable for violating the Hauges’ right to exercise their faith in their home and to ensure no other residents have to suffer through what the Hauges have endured.”
The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star reports that Community Realty Co., which owns The Evergreens, asserts that the filings against the apartment complex do not “accurately portray the situation.”
The Washington Times notes that a letter submitted by management last September states that “[o]ne of the challenges of managing a common area in a residential community like ours is balancing the different preferences of the many people of diverse interests who live here.”