Whose business is it?

Should a property owner be able to refuse to rent to unmarried couples because it violates his or her religious beliefs?

As interpreted by the Michigan Supreme Court last December, the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act bars most Michigan landlords from turning away couples simply because they aren’t married. But attempts to change that are under way on two fronts.

When it ruled, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed a state court of appeals decision favoring John Hoffius, a Jackson landlord who turned away unmarried couples. Hoffius said allowing such couples to live together violated his religious beliefs.

The state Supreme Court ruled that it was the civil rights of renters being violated.

Hoffius, with the assistance of the conservative Rutherford Institute, is now appealing that decision.

Jennifer Schans, Rutherford Institute regional coordinator, admits that one motivating factor for the appeal was the Supreme Court’s newly seated conservative majority. New court members elected in November took their seats in January.

"It definitely went through the minds of the attorneys," says Schans. The court has not yet decided whether it will hear the appeal.

"Is unmarried cohabitation a civil right in Michigan?" asks Hoffius’ attorney, Rick LaFlamme. "We say it isn’t."

LaFlamme further argues that even if the law is intended to protect cohabitors, "it’s unconstitutional to religious landlords."

In the view of Rudy Serra, legal counsel for the Detroit-based Triangle Foundation, the ruling should stand: "Hoffius was a commercial landlord, not a private one. They were imposing their moral beliefs on those who don’t share them."

The gay rights group interprets the law as supporting gay couples in seeking rental housing.

Conservatives in the Legislature aren’t waiting to see where the new court comes down on the issue.

Rep. Clark Bisbee (R-Jackson) last year introduced HB4258, which would revoke current protection of unmarried couples cohabiting as husband and wife, and allow landlords to turn away unmarried renters. The bill came under heavy fire from liberals when the House Constitutional and Ethics Committee held a hearing on it last week.

Serra warns that if it does become law, Bisbee’s legislation could have far-reaching implications.

"Changing the definition of marital status … affects the entire Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act," says Serra. "An employer could refuse employment to a single parent if they don’t have someone to help them out with taking care of their children."

LaFlamme agrees that HB4258 would affect employment, and thinks that is a good thing. In his view, unmarried couples shouldn’t be living together– especially couples of the same sex.

"I don’t think the state of Michigan should be encouraging that kind of relationship," says LaFlamme. "As for same sex couples, that’s an even further breakdown of the traditional family unit. It’s bad public policy. The state ought to be encouraging marriage, it’s good for society and family."

Arthur Warner, director of the American Association for Personal Privacy, cautions that amending the marital status definition would affect much of society, including seniors.

"Traditional marriage is not what it was. It doesn’t fit the needs of modern society," said Warner. "The religious right wants to keep everyone in matrimonial prison. When you go to the city hall for a marriage license, the state acts the way the church wants it to."

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