Court: Senior Citizens Can Seek Punitive Damages in Religious Discrimination Suit Against HOA
Bakersfield, CA–A court has rejected the latest attempt by a homeowners’ association to shield itself from punitive damages for shutting down Bible studies and a Sunday worship service.
Like many retirement communities, Solera at Kern Canyon has a central clubhouse and recreation facilities where numerous interest groups like book clubs and water aerobics meet. About ten years ago, several members of the community began meeting together on Tuesday mornings for a men’s Bible study. Two different women’s Bible studies were later formed. In 2014, some of the men felt a need to serve physically challenged residents who have difficulty leaving the community by offering informal worship on Sundays. The Sunday services quickly became the best attended weekly event held at the clubhouse. Participants come from a wide variety of denominational backgrounds, and it is not a formal church. Unlike most churches, no offering is taken, and the retired pastor who does most of the preaching does not receive a salary.
Late last year, an anti-religious resident who does not attend any of the groups demanded that they cease. Among other invectives, it was suggested the Romans should have finished off the Christians while they had the chance. In response, the HOA Board just before Thanksgiving ordered all four groups to stop meeting in the clubhouse indefinitely. After one resident filed suit in late December and an injunction hearing was scheduled, the Board reluctantly allowed the groups to resume meeting while it considered further restrictions. Leaders of the religious groups are now regularly denounced at the HOA Board meetings and they receive numerous harassing phone calls.
Pacific Justice Institute joined the suit earlier this year representing the leadership of the four groups. At a hearing held last Thursday in Kern County Superior Court, the judge denied four motions on behalf of the homeowners’ association, its Board of Directors and its general manager to strike the punitive damages. The court observed that the allegations, if proved, would be akin to racism and other forms of civil rights violations justifying punitive damages.
Matt McReynolds, the PJI attorney who represented the groups’ leaders last week at the hearing, noted, “We are encouraged that the court recognized the seriousness of the allegations in this suit. While it is not our clients’ desire to punish or be vindictive toward anyone, they simply want to worship in peace, and they continue to face harassment and hostility unlike any other group in the community. We look forward to moving ahead with this case on their behalf.”
Brad Dacus, the president of PJI, noted, “It is an honor and privilege to represent senior saints who are using their retirement years to pursue God and serve their neighbors.”
The next clash in the case is expected over new draft rules and regulations that, if implemented, could eliminate one or more of the four religious groups and give the HOA Board authority to shut down any group deemed by the HOA Board to be causing pision or embarrassment.