Michigan Supreme Court Reversal Allows Landlords to Discriminate on Basis of Marital Status

Affiliate: ACLU of Michigan
April 19, 1999 12:00 am

ACLU Affiliate
ACLU of Michigan
Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States

Monday, April 19, 1999

DETROIT — In a decision remarkable for its disregard of established legal principles, the Michigan Supreme Court has ruled that landlords may discriminate on the basis of marital status.

The decision — released last week — reverses a December order from the state Supreme Court, authored by Justice Marilyn Kelly, which held that a landlord could not assert the First Amendment’s religious freedom clause as a basis for refusing to rent to an unmarried couple.

In that opinion, Kelly observed that: “[The landlord’s] religion may not permit her to rent to unmarried cohabitants, but ‘the right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid . . . law . . . on the ground that the law [prescribes] conduct that his religion [prescribes].’ “

Further, she found that the state’s need to provide equal access to such a fundamental need as housing outweighs the landlord’s religious beliefs.

The Supreme Court issued its ruling after having received a petition for reconsideration in early November. Among those filing a friend of the court brief in support of reconsideration was the Thomas More Law Center recently founded by Tom Monaghan. The More Center indicated in press releases announcing its formation that it intended to act as “a sword and shield for people of faith.”

Kary Moss, Executive Director of the ACLU of Michigan, called the decision “radical and very troubling.”

“The Court disregards the entire notion of precedent, upon which our judicial system rests,” she said. “It suggests an activist judiciary with little respect for basic human rights like shelter. “What is most troubling is that it suggests that this Court may be willing to uphold a variety of discriminatory behaviors so long as the perpetrator argues that it is based on religious beliefs,” Moss continued. “This harkens back to the days of segregation when many government officials believed that the separation of races was biblically required.”

Justices Marilyn Kelly and Michael Cavanagh dissented from the April 16 order.

“Only in the rare case when it is clearly apparent that an error has been made, or changing conditions result in injustice by the application of an outmoded rule, should we deviate from following the established rule,” Kelly said.

The order does not indicate whether Justices Maura Corrigan and Clifford Taylor, both of whom were on the Court of Appeals when the case was before that body, recused themselves from this decision.

Every month, you'll receive regular roundups of the most important civil rights and civil liberties developments. Remember: a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.

Learn More About the Issues in This Press Release