America is engaged in a war of cultures. Almost daily there seems to be some crisis somewhere relating to religious expression. The tone of these cases is that religious expression is undesirable in the public forum and needs to be squelched. While the right to speak restricts yelling “FIRE” in a crowded theater, expressions of faith are no different than any other form of free speech. If it is not allowable, than what’s next to be censored, the Pledge of Allegiance? (Oops, too late!)
Homeowner associations have a unique opportunity to reverse or moderate these attacks on America’s traditional values and liberties. As private organizations, they have the right and flexibility to decide how issues of faith expression are dealt with and avoid the nonsense of political correctness.
While HOAs can’t enact rules and regulations that contradict the Bill of Rights, they do have some latitude on how these rights are played out. Free speech can be restricted on private property. One example that comes to mind is limiting personal signs in the common area. In other words, the fact that America enjoys free speech doesn’t entitle a citizen to crash a private party to express it. So it is with signs. HOAs can control or restrict signs in the common area if that’s what the members want.
When it comes to religion, homeowner associations are not faith free zones. As private organizations, the members are free to do whatever is legal in their own homes and whatever the board feels appropriate in the common area. There are several faith related issues that seem to cause confusion and consternation in HOAs: holding religious services in the clubhouse and hanging Christmas ornaments in the common area. How are they best handled?
Religious Services in the Clubhouse. HOA clubhouses are usually made available for private use by members and residents. If a resident wants to host a poker party, a quilting club or High Mass, they are all legal activities in every state of the country and, as such, the HOA should not have a policy restricting the activity.
The HOA is not obligated to allow private use of the clubhouse but since most clubhouses are rarely used, unless there is a compelling reason to restrict use, there generally should be a provision for member use. There can be some limitations which include:
Restricting Outside Groups. The HOA may have a restriction that limits use to residents and their guests and preclude outside groups from using the facility if no resident is involved. If outside groups are not allowed, the ban needs to extend to all of them.
Limiting Access to Schedule. There may be limitations placed on requests to monopolize the clubhouse schedule for a set time each week.
Limited to Legal Purpose. Use activity can be limited to those that are lawful and do not disturb the community (noise, smell, lighting, etc.).
Charging a Fee. The HOA can invoke a reasonable fee for private use since use creates wear and tear on the facilities.
Christmas Ornaments. Another controversial topic that comes up is whether the HOA should allow Christmas ornaments to be displayed. There seems to be an impression that all ornaments should be forbidden. The real answer is “yes and no”: It’s really up to the members to decide and that decision only should impact the general common area. If decorating the common area with Christmas decorations is something most of the residents feel appropriate, so be it. HOAs are private property controlled by democratic vote. Not everyone will get their way.
Demonstrations of religious expression may be just the opportunity a resident curmudgeon needs to beat the drum of discontent. There may even be threat of lawsuits. The last thing the HOA needs is a brouhaha during holidays which are supposed to represent “peace on earth and good will to men”. By the same token, the board should not get railroaded by Grinches regardless of the season. In the final analysis, peaceful religious expression builds stronger community and these activities can be used to harmonize the community. Keep the faith!